The Orthogonal Galaxy

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Chapter 16

Carlton Zimmers’ research team stepped out of a white shuttle van in a large parking lot. Zimmer looked more tired than ever, while the students looked like energetic, bright-eyed children on a field trip. Nonchalantly, Zimmer thanked the driver of the van and walked towards the adjacent building—an inauspicious off-white structure of four stories in height with no windows and only the identifying number 30 placed high on its wall.

“Not much to look at, huh?” Reyd said, breaking the silence.

“No, you’re not!” Kath shot back at her fellow student as she turned and slugged him on the shoulder for his irreverence at this space exploration monument.

“It doesn’t have to be much to look at,” Joram rebutted. “Just think of the history, Reyd,”

Zimmer settled the squabble once and for all. “Would you all prefer to stand out here and debate the architectural merits of Mission Control, or would you like to go inside and get a closer look at our beam.”

Without a word, the three followed the professor inside the foyer of the building, where a tall middle-aged man was waiting with an outstretched hand.

“Dr. Zimmer.”

“Stan… so kind of you to meet us here.”

“It’s no problem, Professor.

“Students, this is Staneck Rodgers—mission specialist for the Mars mission.” Zimmer introduced each of his students to the NASA engineer.

“I’m glad you all could come see the mission. I, for one, have lost plenty of sleep—mostly over the astronauts, you’ll understand—but also out of curiosity over this mysterious object. I really hope this mission will shed some light on its origin and makeup.”

Walking towards a security desk at the foyer, Stan proceeded with business. “I’ll need each of you to sign your name and provide our security guard, with a set of fingerprints.”

Reyd went first, and Kath remained close by to follow after him. Joram lingered a little behind in order to bend his ear towards the conversation ensuing between Rodgers and Zimmer.

“No, professor,” Joram overheard Staneck as he shook his head. “There have been no anomalies with the mission. Everything is going smoothly. We had a clean separation of the USL from the shuttle at 0913 hours this morning. In approximately 45 minutes, we should have paddle separation. Data collection should begin within a few minutes of trajectory correction for each of the twelve paddles.” Stan looked at his watch. “Things should start getting busy, and hopefully interesting, in about an hour or so.”

“And the astronauts, Stan?” inquired Zimmer with a concerned tone in his voice.

“No fresh evidence, Professor—” Stan answered as Zimmer lowered and shook his head. “—but remember, they are simply following strict protocol to preserve the environment in the bunker. Once they are awaiting rescue, they must remain locked inside, otherwise they compromise too much oxygen.”

“Come on, Stan,” Zimmer protested. “Protocol or not, what would you do? Tell me that you wouldn’t come out during Earth-sight with a field scope and look for a high-luminosity morse signal. You would have to have nerves of steel to wait inside your Martian gravesite, not knowing if or when you were going to be rescued.”

“Astronauts are trained to follow every instruction, Professor.”

“Then why are we sending the signal, Stan? We have stations on three separate oceanic islands, constantly transmitting a night-time light source in morse code, so that the astronauts know about the mission and its timeframe. If we thought they wouldn’t emerge, we wouldn’t send the signal.”

“The astronauts are never notified of the emergency communication signal. They have no idea that such a procedure exists, simply because we don’t want to tempt them to surface too often and squander their environment. The signal is only intended for them to see under dire circumstances.”

Zimmer laughed in ridicule. “So we tell our men to wait it out, but we send a signal that they’re never supposed to see anyway. I just don’t understand these emergency procedures very well.”

“I’m sorry, Professor. Even I didn’t know about the emergency light signals. Until this had occurred, they were highly classified. Remote islands with no human contact were selected in the South Pacific, North Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. High-intensity solar-powered light sources with remote satellite communication capabilities were set up and known only by a few top NASA personnel until they were turned on. Even though these islands are ridiculously remote in most cases, any airplane within a few thousand miles could see the light shining way up into the atmosphere at nighttime. NASA had to declassify them with a formal press release the moment they turned them on.”

“Did Gilroy know?”

“Yes, Professor.”

Zimmer shook his head in disgust.

“Well I am glad that they declassified it, so that every future astronaut in the inner solar system will know that he can still receive communications from Earth. I just think it is atrocious to make those two men suffer the constant emotional stress of imagining death by slow suffocation in a lonely Martian chamber. To build into emergency procedures the knowledge that Martian astronauts in distress are to be left in the dark—perhaps both figuratively and literally—I don’t think the public is going to be too happy with NASA once they realize—”

“All done, Professor,” Zimmer was too busy opining on the state of the astronauts that he entirely missed Kather’s appearance, nor did Kath realize until it was too late that she had interrupted a conversation in a rather tense moment.

“I’m sorry—we’ll just—just wait over here.” Kath stammered.

“No, no, Miss Mirabelle. Your timing is appropriate. Mr. Rodgers and I were just finishing our conversation, and I know he has some pressing matters to look after.”

“My apologies, Professor. There really is nothing more we can do except get that shuttle down to Camp Mars as quickly as possible and return those astronauts to Earth. This is our top priority, I assure you.”

“I am glad to hear it.” Then changing the subject, Zimmer proceeded, “Why don’t you show us to the control room, and we’ll let you get back to getting those astronauts back!” He smiled and gestured that there were no ill-feelings. Deep down, he did know that NASA was doing everything they could to return the astronauts to safety.

Stan gestured to the group to follow him down a long sterile hall awash with bright LED lighting from two contiguous rows of lights along the ceiling and another along each of the walls. At the end of the hall, he turned to his right, and all followed him except for Joram Anders.

“Excuse me,” he called out.

The entire party halted and turned to Joram.

“Shouldn’t we be going that way?” indicating the opposite direction in which Rodgers was leading them.

Kath looked intently down Joram’s hall way, and then back to Stan’s chosen hall. “Joram Anders, why on Earth would you suggest that? These halls look identical.”

“It’s just that the Mars mission control room is down that way,” Joram stated matter-of-factly.

“What?” Reyd said rolling his eyes. In exasperation, he probed, “How would you possibly know that?”

“I’ve been on the observation deck of the control room for the Mars mission.” Noticing that all were still perplexed, he sighed and continued. “In high school, my family came to Houston to visit relatives. They indulged me in a trip to the space center here, where a tour took us onto the observation deck of the Mars mission control. Perhaps the control room has moved since then?”

“No, Joram,” said Stan with a smile. “The control room is still down there. By the way, I’m impressed that you remembered that little detail all of these years. There are no windows in here to retain any sense of direction.”

“Yeah… it’s odd that I remember. I guess I was just so enthralled by the visit that I still remember it like yesterday.”

“Wow,” Stan exclaimed with genuine amazement. “Anyway that control room is devoted to the current activities of the rescue mission. You will not be going down there right now. Instead, I’ll be taking you to a different control room, which is monitoring the remote controlling and data collection of the unmanned mission to examine the beam.”

“Once the Unmanned Space Lab—or USL—left the rescue vehicle, a set of engineers has been assigned to handling the activities of that mission down here. Follow me, I won’t lead you astray.”

With a smile, Stan turned and did not lead them astray, as promised. He opened a door to a control room, somewhat smaller than the Mars control room that Joram had visited during his adolescence. There were just two small rows of consoles on the main floor, and a smaller arena encased with glass for civilian observation of the control operations.

Joram was surprised to notice that the room was fairly full of individuals with visitor’s badges and laptop computers. As if noticing the question on Joram’s face, Stan spoke up.

“As you can see there are already a fair number of individuals representing the press here,” Stan pointed out. “We do have four reserved front row seats for your party, Dr. Zimmer.”

“Thank you so much for your generous hospitality, Stan.”

“Press?” asked Kath. “I’m actually surprised they are all here instead of monitoring the rescue mission down Joram’s preferred hall.” She cut Joram a playful glance, who returned with a feigned smile.

“Actually, the press will be thronging the control room down there tomorrow when the rescue shuttle makes its descent and landing outside of the Camp Mars crater.”

“Outside the crater?” asked Joram. “Why not land in the crater.”

“Well, the runway is useless, as it is littered with shards of solar panel debris. The shuttle will have to make a somewhat risky vertical landing outside the entrance to the crater and then make their way to the bunker in the middle of the crater. With the landing in the morning, they should be able to recover the astronauts sometime by tomorrow afternoon, assuming they can find a relatively unimpeded entrance to the bunker.”

“That should be easy, shouldn’t it?” asked Kath. “We know that the astronauts had already surfaced after the disaster.”

“You are right, Kath,” answered Zimmer quickly, “but you’ll also recall that we didn’t get to see the state of the camp for a couple of weeks. It could be that the devastation was not a single event, and that obstructions have since blockaded all entrances. For example, we have not seen the astronauts wander out since the dust has settled. As you know, there has been about as much tabloid-generating drama by the media on both the astronauts and on the beam. These individuals want to be the first to write up the scoop on the beam. I hope they don’t engender a sense of panic in their reporting of our experiments. We certainly don’t need or want mass-scale fear or panic. Riots, looting, chaos.”

“Do you think it can get that bad, Professor?” Kath asked quietly.

“Not if I have anything to say about it. I have been trying to allay much of the public concern, and will continue to do so. Let us not worry about that now, and take our seats. The show is about to begin, Team.”

With that ending, Stan excused himself in order to continue with flight operations for the rescue mission. Zimmer and students entered into the observation room and took their seats with great anticipation for what would soon unfold.

Conversation was light among the trio of research students. The anxiety was apparent. Kath twirled her hair with her left hand. Reyd nibbled on his fingernails and cuticles. Joram, already at the edge of his seat, gazed at the various monitor displays. A main central display showed a live image of the beam, representing the closest imagery ever obtained. On the right, there were six smaller displays that were presently black except for a caption at the bottom of each. “Paddle one.” “Paddle Two.” And so forth. On the left, a sea of data indicated the status of the mission. Finally, just below the central monitor, a thinner display contained a digital map indicating the locality of the USL with respect to the beam. The USL was represented as a needle-like projection with twelve red dots on top of it.

Joram noted that the map indicated that the USL was beginning to decelerate as it neared the beam, with reverse thrusters fully engaged. Soon, the USL would stop and launch its twelve research stations, called paddles, towards the beam.

“This is the Public Affairs Officer of Mission Flashlight,” the students heard a voice from speakers overhead.

Joram scanned the various stations of mission control to find the source of the voice. Silver placards were placed along a counter-top that ran the length of both rows. In all capital letters, the placards spelled words and acronyms such as CONTROL, NETWORK, FIDO, GUIDO. Ah, there it was… PAO. In the middle of the second row of stations, Joram saw the bald spot on the back of the head of a silver-haired engineer who sat at the public affairs station. This is the man who would exclusively communicate all mission activities to the press booth and anyone listening to the appropriate communication channel around the country. He was currently engaged in conversation with a middle-aged woman with short blonde hair sitting in the front row, at a station labeled FLIGHT. She nodded her head to the PAO, and then spoke into a headset as she returned her gaze forward, looking at the data scrolling by.

“The FLIGHT officer has noted an ETA of just under 4 minutes, 30 seconds. PAYLOAD is powering up and confirming the status of each paddle. Power-on-self-test should complete in approximately 6 minutes. So far, all systems are a ‘go’ on payload delivery.”

“Well, team,” Zimmer whispered as he glanced over at his wide-eyed astronomy students. “This is where I get off.”

Eyes growing wider, the Professor explained. “I’ll be spending the rest of the mission down there.” Zimmer indicated an empty chair at the FLIGHT station, next to the blonde, who was now standing and relaying instructions to somebody seated at the NETWORK station at the other end of her row. “NASA has asked me to provide real-time decisions in light of data received from the paddles.” He paused briefly and took a deep breath in realization. “The next time I see you, we’ll have lots to talk about. Take good notes on every idea that comes to you, and enjoy the show.”

At that, all three students watched the professor open the door and leave them for the more spacious and hectic atmosphere of mission control. Seating himself quietly, he greeted the engineers around him, promptly put on a headset, and sat back in his chair, while others around him maintained their efforts.

The PAO announced the next milestone in the mission. “FLIGHT informs me that the lab has obtained resting velocity and has turned over main mission operation to PAYLOAD. Payload chamber doors are sequencing. NETWORK is providing real-time imagery of the hatch for mechanical observation.”

The main monitor no longer showed the growing brightness of the yellow beam, but instead changed its view to a camera looking straight down on top of the USL. A long rectangular chamber was coming to view as curved doors slid underneath the cylindrical body of the vehicle. Within moments, the doors were fully open, and the inside of the chamber depicted its payload of a dozen three-foot round iridescent objects each sitting at a 45-degree angle with the doors of the chamber.

These paddles were loaded with observational and telecommunication equipment. Cameras, sensors, and on-board laboratory equipment would be able to instantly detect, measure and determine the impact of material and radiation. Tens of thousands of sensors made up the array of each paddle, which would be able to communicate the pattern of any material being emitted by the beam.

“Launching paddle number one.”

The forward-most paddle began to lift seamlessly from the chamber. Once the round disk had emerged, a long shaft used for steering and guiding the paddle indicated exactly why the term ‘paddle’ had been used for the objects. It resembled a holographic video disk on a silver Popsicle stick. The paddle cleared the payload bay, rotated, and straightened, yielding a burst of color reflected from the Sun.

“Paddle one is heading for rendezvous on the far side of the beam as paddle two begins launch.”

One at a time, the first six paddles were each successively launched in this manner, and the trajectories, marked by six red dots on the map display, began their journey towards the beam. Monitors for paddles one through six also began to convey statistics and images from each of the paddles. They approached the beam in a precalculated manner, such that all six pointed directly towards the beam in sixty degree intervals, thus allowing a full study of the beam on all of its sides.

Complete silence from inside the observation deck as well as from the PAO indicated growing tension and curiosity. Activity from the control floor bustled as a flurry of directions were passed back and forth from CONTROL, NETWORK, and PAYLOAD. Zimmer—still reclined in his seat—appeared to be the only relaxed individual in the front row, but Joram could see enough of his face to note that he was devotedly attentive to the data as it came across the various monitors and displays.

The paddles all appeared to be in position, and after a nearly unbearable silence, the team began to wonder why the mission seemed to be on pause. The PAO appeased their doubts, “Paddles are now in position for deployment into the beam, but FLIGHT has recommended a delay for delivery of sensory data. Deployment into beam is estimated at fourteen minutes.”

While the students felt that they couldn’t bare another moment of anticipation, the more-experienced Zimmer knew that patience and data collection was needed at the moment. It would be inexcusable to compromise the mission after millions of dollars had been spent on it should a hasty judgment jeopardize the entire effort. Further, Zimmer knew that the world had already waited for weeks to obtain answers. Another fourteen minutes would not break the bank.

In silence, the students waited anxiously. Kath had to place a steadying hand on Joram’s knee to remind him to relax once and then twice. On the third attempt, Joram turned and whispered, “Sorry, Kath, but the suspense is killing me. What are they waiting for?”

Kath only shrugged, but Reyd, seated on the other side of her leaned across her and breathed an explanation. “Zimmer is a very deliberate person. He never makes hasty decisions, but weighs all of the data first. You won’t have to work with him too long to realize this.”

“The NETWORK officer advises the team that the paddles are all in good health, and that no extraordinary sensory information has been obtained by any of them. FLIGHT advises that the mission proceed ahead. The mission has calculated that the paddles are presently located 25 kilometers or 15 miles away from visible extent of the beam, and that the minimum diameter of the beam is calculated at about 12000 kilometers or a little less than 7,500 miles. CONTROL is advised to begin coordinated acceleration of the paddles up to 1 kilometer per minute, which is a little over 35 miles per hour.”

The map began to indicate the movement of the six paddles towards each other as they closed in on the beam. Joram fixed his focus on the six displays of the paddle’s cameras, which were pointed directly toward the beam. Each image simply contained a bright yellow light with very little form or shape to it. There was a flickering of intensity and it appeared that the light leapt all around, as though a million fireflies were densely packed together in a glass jar placed in the blackness of outer space.

Superimposed on the bottom right of each image were two vertical bars with gradient shading from blue at the top to red at the bottom. One labeled ‘light intensity’ had about a third of the meter filled with red. The other bar was labeled ‘particle density’. It had just a hint of red for each of the paddles. On the bottom left, he saw a pair of numbers indicate the speed of the paddle and its distance to the center of the beam. He watched as the paddles accelerated from 20 to 30 to 40 and eventually to 58 km/h. He also saw the distance decrease from 12,050 km… 12,010 km… 11,080 km.

As the distance decreased, he noticed that the light intensity was increasing uniformly for each paddle. He leaned forward and furiously scribbled notes on his Digital Note Tablet, stopping mid-sentence as a cold shiver passed through his spine. His head whipped up to look at Zimmer, only to find an empty chair. Furiously, his eyes raced through the control room to find his mentor, and spotted him standing on the right hand side of the front row, scanning the paddle imagery and data. His head slowly turned back to the observation room, where he could just make out the wide-eyed stare of Joram Anders. Zimmer gave a single and nearly imperceptible nod of recognition. Teacher and pupil were in sync with the same discovery.

Kath noticed the exchange. “What’s wrong?” she implored.

Joram looked behind him to notice the throng of media and realized the need for discretion. He raised a finger to indicate that he needed a moment and returned to his tablet in order to finish his observation and conclusion. With an exclamation mark, he handed his notes over for Kath and Reyd to read.

“1912 hours. Paddles reach visible extent of beam at a distance of 12000 km from center of beam. Light intensity is uniform at all six positions around the beam, and yet paddle 2 is on the sunny side of beam, while paddle 5 is on opposite side of beam from sun. Conclusion: beam does not reflect sunlight… it generates light from within!”

After reading Joram’s notes and understanding the magnitude of this discovery, Kath and Reyd looked back up to the displays and noticed that indeed, all of the live camera images from each of the six paddles had the same intensity of yellow flickering light. The predominant theory was that the beam was just the tail of a comet reflecting a large density of ice or rock chunks, but discovering the brightness of the beam on its side opposite of the Sun proved that this clearly could not be the case.

The thoughts of the students were broken by an announcement from the public affairs officer. “Paddles are communicating a slight radiation increase as they begin to enter the visible extent of the beam. Some sensors are detecting impacts of small quantities of highly-quantized positively-charged particles. Mission specialists indicate that extremely small masses indicate a very fine dust of atomic-sized materials.”

Joram watched the paddles and noticed that the ‘particle density’ bars were showing more red now, and that the red was slowly beginning to fill the bars of each paddle, at which he noticed the image of one of the paddles—paddle three, to be precise—went black.

“NETWORK indicates a sudden communication failure with paddle three. They are seeking to reengage the paddle via commands to the Unmanned Space Lab.”

After a lengthy pause, the commentary continued, “NETWORK is currently studying whether a radiation spike inside of the beam may have caused the failure, but… we have… yes… NETWORK confirms outage in paddles one and four. A significant and unanticipated communication breach has occurred now with three… four paddles, as paddle two has also lost comm with the USL. Paddles five and six are now spiking heavily with impact sensory data, as they receive as much as 12000 fine-particle impacts per second. CONTROL is beginning to rotate direction of paddles five and six to reduce the amount of direct impact density in case significant and irreparable damage has been incurred…”

The voice trailed off shortly after the remaining two images went black. Joram noticed that all six red dots that had submerged into the beam had disappeared completely from the map. By all indicators, the beam had simply eaten up all six paddles.

Reyd placed his head in his hands, while Kath’s trembling right hand was covering her mouth firmly. Joram looked to the control room floor, where Zimmer was observed relaying orders into his headset while fixing his stare on the monitor at his station. He stood up, dropped his headset down onto the station, and paced to the back of the control room, where he attempted to gain a better big picture of what little data remained on the wall in front of him.

“Mission control confirms the loss of communication with all six paddles. NETWORK is attempting to reestablish comm, but the team assumes a total loss of paddles to an unknown failure.”

“Communication scrambling, perhaps?”

“Please elaborate, Mr. Eastman.”

“Well, Professor, I was just thinking that perhaps once the paddles penetrated the outer sheath of the beam that the radiation emission of the beam superimposed on the communication signal would cause the signal to scramble sufficiently to lose complete comm.”

“Hmmm… I’m not sure, Mr. Eastman. Recall that we sent paddles four and five to the opposite side of the beam from where the USL was, and the communication signal apparently was able to arrive unimpeded even though those signals had to go directly through the beam.”

“I suspect radiation damage,” Kath announced. “The paddle detected radiation, but could not identify it—similar to what happened here on Earth at Time Zero, right?”

“Could be, Miss Mirabelle. While the paddles are radiation-hardened, we are unable to test its ability to reject radiation that we have not identified.”

Turning to Joram, Zimmer continued. “Mr. Anders, you’ve been quiet. What do you think?”

“Well, I don’t know, honestly, but since we’re brainstorming, I’ll throw another idea out there. What about particle impact damage? I noticed that the impact density was pegged at about 68000 per second. I calculated that to be about 60 impacts per square inch per second.”

“But none of the paddles ever indicated anything larger than an atom.”

“You see, that’s where I’m confused. How can none of this matter coalesce into larger bodies? What could possibly pulverize and energize this matter so greatly?”

“I don’t know, but this is all good data, Joram,” reminded Zimmer. “The media right now is having a field day over this. They’re transmitting articles to their editors on the failed mission, but they are wrong. We have some very great data that has yielded some new understanding that we didn’t have before. The beam is actually emitting its own light, and not reflecting sunlight as previously believed. We know that the beam physically consists of highly-quantized atomic particles. And… we still have six paddles to go.”

“How is that going to help us, Professor?” Kath asked sincerely. “The first six were gobbled up by the beam. Won’t the next six meet a similar fate?”

“Perhaps, but we now know how to maximize our odds for utilizing the last six better. In case we did experience radiation or particle damage, we will inject the paddles in parallel to the direction of the beam, instead of letting them approach in a perpendicular fashion.”

“How will that help?” Kath inquired.

“It’s like when you were a kid and stuck your hand out of the car as it was moving. When you placed it perpendicular to the flow of the air, it met great resistance, right? But when you turned your hand 90 degrees the force of the wind subsided. We’re going to hope that we can avoid the ‘wind’ of the beam by injecting the next three paddles in a parallel fashion.”

“Three paddles?” asked Joram.

“We started with twelve, and now we’re down to just six. I don’t want to spend them all on one remaining experiment. Instead of spreading six paddles out in 60 degree increments, we’ll place three of them in 120 degree slots instead, and then if we need to we’ll have a third shot at data collection with the final three paddles.

“Also, we’re going to take it much slower now as we penetrate the visible extent. We were going faster than we knew we should when we hit the border at 60 kilometers per hour. So… by changing direction and slowing the speed, we’ll keep our fingers crossed for some better results.”

Zimmer scanned the faces of his three graduate students, probing for visual clues as to their thoughts. “Anything else you’d like to discuss before we go back to the control room, Team?”

Kath shook her head and Joram shrugged, but Reyd did have one more question to ask. “Professor, so far you’ve been listening to a lot of our hair-brained ideas, but you haven’t shared your thoughts on this. What do you think we’re dealing with?”

Zimmer gave a deep sigh and measured how he would answer the question. His answer was uninspiring. “I think we’re looking at the tail of a comet.”

“But the tail is potentially light years in length, and it gives off light even weeks after the comet passed by,” Reyd rebutted.

“Mr. Eastman, you asked me what I thought. I gave you an answer. I honestly believe that we are looking at the tail of a comet, but an exotic one to be sure.”

“Exotic?” asked Joram, seeking further clarification.

“If I could describe it with greater clarity, Mr. Anders, I would do so. We don’t have all of the answers yet. We need the paddles to stay in the beam long enough to transmit back to us the material makeup of the beam. Then, we might be able to formulate sowme decent theories.”

“Professor, do you believe the comet is responsible for the destruction on Mars?” asked Kath. “The beam occurred a few days after the damage. Did we really miss seeing it for that long?”

“It could be that the tail was there all along, but that for some reason, the matter didn’t start illuminating until it reached a particular state. We know that the light is starting to fade out… it may have also faded in. I know that doesn’t adequately answer your question, but again, the only word I have to describe it now is exotic. Any other questions?”

The three looked at each other and at Professor Zimmer, but they knew that for all of the questions that could be asked, the answers just weren’t there yet. Well understood—and yet unspoken—was one simple fact: if paddles number seven through twelve did not perform adequately, those questions may never be answered.

As the quartet were left to their thoughts and concerns, the door to the conference room opened up. Dr. Gilroy stepped through with Stan Rodgers.

Gilroy bounded towards Zimmer with an outstretched hand. “Dr. Zimmer, it’s great to see you again.”

“Thank you for opening up your marvelous facility to my research team, Dr. Gilroy.”

Gilroy nodded in recognition of the trio of students who stood at attention across the table. “I’m sorry that the mission didn’t go better, Carlton.”

“Actually, I think it went very well, Vurim.”

“But you lost the paddles.”

“We lost half of the paddles, and we gained a few more pieces of the puzzle, and we have confidence that we’ll get even more by a better-informed application of the next paddles.”

“So you have a plan of attack for continuing the mission?”

“Indeed.”

“When would you like to start back up, Professor?”

“As soon as possible.”

Gilroy turned to his mission specialist. “Stan, can you please round up the Flashlight team? It looks like we’re back in business.”

“Shall we inform the press as well, Doctor?”

Zimmer burst in. “No! I’d prefer that the press were not involved in the next phase of the mission. Besides, they got their story, and there is no need to waste their time should that story not be enhanced. If there is much to write home about after the show is over, we can hold a press conference.”

Gilroy weighed this request for several moments. All eyes rested on him. “Stan, gather the team into the control room… but do not make an announcement to the press.”

“Thank you, Vurim,” Zimmer spoke with relieved and gracious tones.

“You realize, Carlton that this is highly unorthodox. We rely on a fairly complicated relationship with the press and their interaction in Washington.”

“They’ll forgive us if we have anything juicy to share with them, and if not, they won’t care anyway.”

Gilroy turned towards the exit as the door slowly swung shut behind Stan. “Good luck, Carlton. We really need to solve this mystery for the sake of the entire space program.”

“We’ll do our best, Vurim.”

Three red dots came to rest at the end of curved lines indicating their trajectories on the map. They flanked the yellow line, indicating their position to descend into the territory from which six prior dots never emerged.

The setting felt very familiar to Joram, as he sat in the same seat of the observation room monitoring the yellow images being transmitted back from the paddles. But there were a few differences. Now there were only three images now instead of six, the observation room was vacated of the presence of the media, and several new control team members occupied seats on the control room floor—the others having been dismissed sometime before 11:50 PM, when the CalTech team reentered the control room.

In the pre-mission activity, Joram kept a close eye on Zimmer, who was wandering from station to station, communicating with the NETWORK, GUIDANCE, and FLIGHT team members. Joram also noticed the absence of the PAO, who was dismissed since the media was not invited to this second round of mission activity. The grad students all knew that this meant there would be no play-by-play commentary in the observation room. Instead, they would have to take fastidious notes on visual clues only and draw their own conclusions as to how the mission was proceeding.

“GUIDO, please continue with synchronization of acceleration at 00:15 hours local time,” Professor Zimmer spoke into his headset after sitting in his chair at the FLIGHT station. A digitally projected clock in the upper left-hand corner of the mission display wall currently showed the time as 12:12 AM central time. A similar display nearby read 1 day, 14 hours, 59 minutes, and 7 seconds indicating the start of the Flashlight Mission as indicated by the separation of the Unmanned Space Lab from the rescue vehicle the day before.

GUIDO, the commonly applied name for the guidance officer responded to the command. “Roger that FLIGHT command. GUIDANCE is confirming a unified start-up pattern at 00:15 hours with paddles seven, eight, and nine ramping up to 30 km/h for 12 minutes, at which time all three units will uniformly decelerate to 18 km/h as they penetrate beam boundary. Paddles are already rotated for parallel immersion into beam in order to minimize impact of particles as previously discussed.”

Satisfied with the response from GUIDANCE, Zimmer checked in on the other teams as well. “NETWORK, please commence impact and radiation detection and assessment in T minus 5 minutes,”

“Roger that, Professor!”

“Now we cross our fingers and wait,” Zimmer breathed to his companion at the FLIGHT station after switching off his headset. The quiet of the room induced a tension that the graduate students were already growing accustomed to. Kath twirled her long hair. Reyd took deep breaths and tried to relax with his hands locked behind his head. Joram’s hand was trembling as it waved over his note tablet.

After fifteen minutes of anticipation, the red dots were slowing down, when particle impact began. The paddles penetrated into the beam and data rushed across the monitors. Deeper into the beam they went. Zimmer heaved a sigh as the paddles were observed communicating even as they passed the point of no return for the first six paddles. Joram, Kath, and Reyd gave each other knowing glances and slight nods of the heads to indicate that Zimmer was dead-on in his suggestions to rotate the paddles away from the beam’s direction of travel and to penetrate more slowly than before.

“CONTROL observing rotational acceleration in paddle number nine, currently at 0.65 degrees out of intended plane of descent. Paddles seven and eight holding at zero degrees. Attempting counter-active maneuvers to restore paddle nine to a zero degree rotation.”

Zimmer responded quickly, “CONTROL, we’re gonna have a very difficult time maintaining location of these paddles if we have to control them with a twenty-minute lag of communication. Please program all three paddles for coordinated automatic calibration.”

After a brief pause, “Um… FLIGHT, we don’t see automatic calibration as a feature on the paddles.”

Zimmer flipped rapidly through a binder on his desk as he responded, “It’s in the requirements document, CONTROL… section 4.23.3.”

It was CONTROL’s turn to flip through a binder at their station. “FLIGHT, we are cross-referencing section 4.23.3. Please confirm.”

“4.23.3 confirmed.”

“FLIGHT, requirement 4.23.3 was opted out of the retrofit of the paddles according to our docs.”

“What?” Zimmer stood up and glared at the CONTROL station behind him. “Are you sure that 4.23.3 was not implemented?”

“Yes, sir. It says here in section 4.23.3, ‘Requirement denied. Budget overrun.’ Command has been sent to back-thrust on roll which is now at 0.83 degrees. CONTROL is also noticing additional yaw of the paddle in the down-stream direction of the beam. Command has been sent to correct for yaw once roll is… Um… acceleration of paddle nine down-stream is greater than anticipated… rotational acceleration increasing roll to 1.77 degrees… make that 2.16…”

Zimmer put his head in his hand as he saw the writing on the wall. At the speed of light, control signals from Houston, Texas would take ten minutes to reach the paddle. By that time, the paddle would be erratically out of control, and its yaw, roll—and perhaps pitch—would be grossly out of the reach of the CONTROL officer to correct. Paddle nine had effectively completed its service already.

“CONTROL reports a rapidly degrading roll and acceleration on the yaw… paddle nine now traveling at 85 km/h down-range… 113 km/h. FLIGHT, CONTROL requests to abort paddle nine from the flow of the beam in order to regain control. Particle impact at 27.5 degree roll is now accelerating the paddle rapidly down-range.”

Zimmer spoke calmly, “How do you propose to gain control before the paddle is out of range of comm with the USL, CONTROL? You would first have to successfully control the yaw in order to point the paddle away from the beam and then accelerate away from its center.”

Without responding to the original question, the voice from the other headset continued, “Down-range acceleration at… at… four… no… six…” The voice trailed off as the image and associated data for paddle nine went black.

“Did you see that red dot?” exclaimed Kath inside the observation room. “It seems like all of the paddles so far are making a rapid 90 degree turn downstream just before they disappear. What could be going on?”

Reyd was the first to offer a response. “It looks like they lost control of it and it went haywire.”

“Why are they losing control to begin with? The math indicates that the particle impact is just not sufficient to knock these things off course” Kath said incredulously.

“I don’t know,” offered Reyd weakly, “What do you think, Joram? Joram?”

Reyd and Kath turned to notice that Joram was so absorbed in thought that he didn’t even hear his name being called. Kath walked over to where he was standing against the Plexiglas wall of the observation room. Placing a hand on his shoulder, she whispered, “Joram?”

Joram turned with a confused expression on his face.

“What are you thinking about?” Kath asked now that she had his attention.

“Well, I don’t know what to make of it. It took no longer than a minute for the paddle to completely disappear. It must have a very weak signal strength to lose contact with the USL that quickly. They probably need all of the power for propulsion and stabilization, huh?”

“But, did you see how the red always does a rapid 90 degree turn just before going blank?” Reyd asked.

“Yeah, I did see the red dot, but we’ll have to review the data to see its actual acceleration.”

All three graduate students turned back to the display. A couple of mission specialists, including Zimmer, were now standing, but a flurry of activity began when the students noticed a brief image on the paddle nine display.

“Wait!” said Reyd, maybe it still has a heartbeat after all. But, as quickly as it appeared, it disappeared.

“NETWORK?” called out Zimmer firmly.

“Yes, Professor?”

“Please get me the data which we just received from paddle nine. I want its exact location and speed. Everything, NETWORK… just get me all of the data, please.”

“We’ll do, FLIGHT. Give us just a couple of minutes to translate the raw data.”

Zimmer realized that in the fight to regain number nine that paddles seven and eight had been mostly ignored. “CONTROL, it looks like there is movement on seven and eight. Please confirm.”

“FLIGHT, we are seeing very slight down-flow acceleration, but we are noticing significant deviation in cross-sectional location.”

“NETWORK, any abnormal data collection from seven and eight?”

“Plenty of minute particle impact mostly occurring on the under-side of both paddles.”

Zimmer gave a brief exclamation, “CONTROL, try not to lose these… keep them under control!” Then he threw his headset to the desk and raced towards the back of the room.

Bursting into the observation room, the wide-eyed students stood riveted. “Do you see it?” Zimmer announced almost breathless. “Look at the trajectory of the remaining two dots!”

The students did indeed see ‘it’.

“Why they’re moving inside the beam… in a corkscrew fashion!” Kath announced.

Zimmer blurted out “That is the flow of our beam. The particles are swirling around in the beam as they travel down-stream.”

“What could cause that, Professor?” asked Joram.

“I think we are indeed seeing the tail of a fast spinning comet that is spewing off some highly radioactive material. I must get back, but please continue to observe closely, and discuss among yourselves what you make of all of this. We will continue to monitor the trajectory of paddles seven and eight and collect as much impact and radiation data as possible. We’re going to solve this puzzle, Team!”

In a flash, the aging—yet nimble—astronomer, raced back to his position, and placed the headset back on.

The control officer was already speaking, “should be able to control the rate of acceleration, since the direction of seven and eight is much more stable. Signal sent to counter-balance the rapidly increasing rates of cross-sectional rotation.”

Zimmer shook his head as he spoke in dismay, “Are we losing these as well, CONTROL?”

“We are doing our best, Professor, but the comm signal will still require several minutes to arrive.”

Zimmer leaned far back in his seat, closed his eyes, and listened as CONTROL managed to let two more paddles slip away all too quickly. He knew, however that he couldn’t blame his teammates on the control floor. The lack of automatic control calibration that he placed as a requirement on the paddles was denied by some bean counter in Washington D.C., who knew everything there was to know about budgets, and absolutely nothing about what was needed to make a mission succeed. Here, millions had been spent on preparing the mission, and at least one required retrofit on the experiment paddles was expended. Zimmer was confident that with this feature, the paddles would still be collecting data and providing valuable information that would be needed to solve the mystery.

The clock on the small conference room wall read 01:25. The smell of steaming coffee permeated throughout as well, as all four individuals sat around a rectangular table, sipping the elixir that they needed to keep them going for the third—and final—round of the mission.

Professor Zimmer heaved a weary sigh and rubbed his blurry eyes. “Ok, so we still have three paddles, Team. As you have no doubt noticed, we have had great difficulty in controlling the first nine as they entered the beam. Because of an oversight in paddle construction, I have no hope that we will keep the final three paddles for any significant amount of time either. How do we best utilize them to understand the beam? I need every thought and idea that you can come up with to help us maximize our learning.”

Reyd offered the first suggestion, “If we aren’t going to have them for much time, then I suggest we ram the beam with one at full speed.”

“What do you think we might learn from this, Mr. Eastman?” Zimmer inquired.

“Maybe we could drive it straight through the beam and have it emerge out the other side. I’d like to see if we can get to the center of the beam.”

“Let’s not forget that the beam is 12000 km wide. The paddle can obtain a safe maximum velocity of 400 km/h. It would take thirty hours to get all the way through, and we haven’t had more than a few minutes with any of the paddles yet. However, I—like you—would love to pentrate as deeply as we can. Perhaps we will get some imagery or sensory data telling us what is in the beam as we get closer to the center.”

“Speaking of the center,” Kath voiced softly yet confidently, “since we know that the beam demonstrates a very turbulent corkscrew flow, I wonder if we get to the center and all will be calm and quiet.”

“Not a bad idea, Miss Mirabelle. But how to get it there? We’ve entered at two different speeds and angles and we can’t seem to get very far into the beam. We could, perhaps, tear through as Mr. Eastman suggests, and decelerate quickly once we near the center—if we can get that far. We’ll keep it in mind.”

Zimmer glanced over at Joram. “Two paddles, two ideas from two team members. What do you say, Joram? If you had full control over paddle number twelve, how would you use it?”

“My idea is similar to Reyd’s… drive it at full speed—”

“Boys,” Kath snorted. “It’s all about speed, isn’t it?”

Joram feigned to ignore her as he fixed his gaze on Zimmer. “Drive it at full speed—upstream.”

Zimmer gave a twitch which looked like an effort not to betray some thought which he had not shared with the team. He swallowed, cleared his throat, and proceeded in a normal tone. “Upstream, Mr. Anders? What do you mean by that?”

“I mean rather than hitting the beam at 90 degrees, I’d like to penetrate the beam at a very shallow angle with the pedal to the metal, Professor.”

Looking intently at his pupil, he queried further. “Why would you want to do that? What do you intend to gain?”

“I—I don’t—well, I guess I don’t really know. Just a gut feeling, you can say.” Anders was hiding something and even at this late hour, his transparency was readily perceived by all.

“C’mon, Joram,” Kath leaned closer towards him. “Tell us what you’re really thinking.”

“Oh, I don’t really know what we should do with the paddle. It’s late, and I’m not thinking clearly,” conceded Joram, attempting to deflect the scrutiny. “Professor, what do you think we should do with the paddle?”

Silence ensued for several moments. Zimmer weighed the question a little, but considered the exchange from Joram even more. Not yet ready to betray his own thoughts yet, or what he suspected to be Joram’s thoughts, he wrapped up the meeting as follows.

“Three paddles… three suggestions. I actually like all of them. At this point, I’d like to start with Mr. Eastman’s proposal. If we can indeed get the paddle all the way through at high speed, we might be able to make even more use of it. Depending on the outcome, we’ll take Miss Mirabelle’s suggestion second, and see if we might not be able to rest a paddle in the center of the beam. If we’re successful, we might be able to keep the paddle there for days in order to collect images and data from the inside. Mr. Anders, your paddle will go last, since it appears to be the most reckless idea of all to go full tilt upstream, and since you have not given us a well-founded reason behind your suggestion—unless you care to do so now.”

With this last phrase, Joram broke off eye contact with Zimmer and looked, instead, at the clock on the wall. He was uncomfortable with the change of expression on Zimmer’s face, and hoped not to give him an opportunity to discern his thoughts. Perhaps if he avoided eye contact, Zimmer would not be able to penetrate his mind.

“All right, then,” Zimmer stated as he stood from his chair, realizing that Joram Anders was not going to reveal himself. “Let’s get back in there for the final push.”

The door to the observation room closed. Reyd and Kath unleashed on Joram.

“What was that exchange back there, Joram Anders?” Kath scolded.

“Huh?”

“Don’t ‘huh’ me. There was something fairly tense back there. You, Zimmer?”

Reyd opined on the matter. “Well, yeah. When a college professor asks you a question, it’s usually a good idea to answer.” The last word came out louder than even Reyd had intended.

“Look guys, it’s just late… I’m tired… Besides, I don’t think he really looked very reprimanding of the matter.”

“Oh, come on, Joram,” Kath said. “You have admired Carlton Zimmer since you were practically in diapers. You are realizing your dream of studying under him. Why would you jeopardize your standing with him with this reticence?”

Joram wanted to change the subject and defuse the tension. “Hey, I’ll have you know I was out of diapers by the time I was eight.”

Realizing that his attempted humor didn’t exactly work as well as he would have liked, he tried a more sincere tact. “Look guys, I now know that I shouldn’t have suggested going upstream, because… well, it’s a stupid idea, and I’m sure I’ve lost better judgment this late in the evening.”

“What is the idea, Joram?” Kath implored.

“No, Kath—it’s—please forget it. I’ll tell you someday—I promise—when we can all look back and have a good laugh about it.”

Kath didn’t look convinced.

“I promise,” Joram stated with a tone of finality.

Realizing she wasn’t going to pull it out of him, Kath honored Joram’s last word on the subject. “Ok, ok… I’m sorry to be so pushy about it. Let’s sit down and watch the show, shall we?”

After a brief pause, Reyd tried to loosen up a little bit. “It’s too bad there aren’t any couches in here to lie down on. Paddle eleven is just now being undocked. It’ll be at least a half hour before the paddles are in place for deployment.”

“Hey, I’ll keep an eye out on the progress if you guys want to close your eyes and catch a few winks.” Joram’s offer was genuine and was readily accepted by Reyd, and reluctantly agreed upon by Kath. Both were grateful for the offer and quickly found a position in their seats in which they could refresh themselves for a moment.

Joram slowly paced back and forth along the front of the room, his gaze focused on the mauve carpet that was compressing under his feet. The full-length glass wall made it easy for Zimmer to occasionally peer in. It was clear that Joram was heavily burdened, and Zimmer suspected he knew the reason for his turmoil—particularly if it was due to the same concern which he himself carried with him since earlier in the evening.

The time dragged on for Joram, as he paced and weighed his concerns in his head. “What a ridiculous theory. Why did I ever suggest upstream? Will this change my relationship with Zimmer? Will he look for a replacement on his research team? I didn’t mean to disrespect his authority or intelligence. What a ridiculous theory.”

His mind raced. Time flew by rapidly. He heard a tap on the glass wall separating himself from the control room. Joram looked up, and saw Zimmer point to his eyes and then to his watch, as if to say, “Showtime, Mr. Anders!” Joram looked at the clock on the control room wall and then back to Zimmer with a knowing look on his face. He nodded as he wheeled around to wake Reyd and Kath. The three students resumed their vigilance on the mission as they saw a red dot indicating paddle number ten racing towards the beam. They could see the data set against the background of the yellow flickering image. 384 km/hr. The paddle was at maximum velocity, and was about to penetrate the outer extent of the beam.

The next several minutes proved tense. All remained quiet, breathless, and attentive to see how far the paddle would be able to penetrate the beam. Reyd kept glancing at his watch. So far, none of the paddles had gotten farther than approximately a few miles inside the particle-rich beam.

Exuberantly, he worked the math. “This might just work, Guys! We’re looking at four miles of progress per minute. We’re about ten minutes into the experiment. That’s 40 miles so far”

Kath responded quietly. “Dang it! You spoke to soon, Reyd… the position is degrading.” The red dot was veering downstream rapidly.

On the control room floor, sensors started failing, the image went black, the red dot demonstrated a final 90-degree curved directory, and transmission ceased completely.

Reyd stood up. “There must be some larger debris in there breaking these things up. That’s just got to be the answer.”

Joram rebutted. “I don’t think so, Reyd. None of the sensors have detected anything larger than a small grain of sand. Wouldn’t we start to see some larger objects before a large rock blasts it away? If that theory were true, you’d start to see pea-sized pebbles, then golf-ball sized rocks, and then a basketball offering that would knock it out for good. From sand to large rock without anything else in between? Maybe, but I’d think the odds are highly against it.”

“So what then, Genius?” Reyd’s fatigue induced a hasty and defensive posture.

Joram shook his head. “It would all make sense if the debris were larger, like Reyd proposed. I could totally see the debris start to move the paddle downstream and eventually cause it to break up. But you can’t make that conclusion with the small size of the debris that is impacting these paddles. The math simply doesn’t stick, no matter how fast our sand is moving through this hourglass.”

Zimmer stepped into the room with a dejected look on his face. “Two paddles to go team, and it’s looking like we won’t penetrate this thing far enough. Kath, since Reyd’s paddle could barely scrape the surface, what do you want to do with your paddle now?”

Kath looked down at the floor, and then looked up at Zimmer. “I’ve been thinking a little bit about Deneb, Professor.”

Zimmer raised an eyebrow and wrinkled his forehead in interest. “Me too, Ms. Mirabelle. Along with any number of puzzle pieces that we haven’t yet put together. What do you propose?”

“Well, I’m not sure what to propose, but we haven’t yet found a vastly massive source that could cause enough gravity to distort the light in that manner. Can we do something to explore the gravity of the beam?”

“There doesn’t really seem to be significant gravitational pull, Miss Mirabelle. We’ve navigated several of the paddles to the opposite side of the beam with respect to the USL. The guidance team tells me that there have been no abnormal course corrections due to unexpected gravitational forces.”

“Then what is causing the light bending, and how can we study it?” Kath pondered.

“I’m not sure that we can even see the light bending at close range. I’ve been recording image data from the paddles, and the images seem to indicate no bending of light, but we’ll need to run some computer simulations and rendering to compare with expected results.”

After a brief pause, Kath suggested, “Professor, can we go ahead and deploy Joram’s paddle next, and then confer about paddle twelve when we get there?”

“Great idea, Miss Mirabelle,” Zimmer agreed. “We’ll get your paddle in position next, Mr. Anders.”

Joram’s paddle, of course, met a similar fate. After slamming into the beam at full speed in the opposite direction of particle travel, the trajectory curved nearly 180 degrees very quickly towards the direction of the beam’s flow, and the paddle spun wildly out of control before losing contact with mission control.

With one paddle to go, the team consulted sternly over the prospects of collecting any data they thought would be useful.

“I’ve got an idea, Professor,” stated Kath as they conversed. “It seems that just before the demise of each paddle, a very rapid change of course occurs first. Maybe we’re inducing too much stress on the paddles to have their position change so rapidly. As such, I propose that we revisit Joram’s experiment—in reverse.”

“What?” asked Reyd with a condescending tone.

“I think,” started Zimmer with a glare of disdain for the tactless syllable voiced by his pupil, “that Mr. Eastman means, ‘What a great idea!’, but please do explain exactly what you mean, Miss Mirabelle?”

“I’m thinking that we should send the final paddle at full speed, but instead of going upstream, let’s go downstream. The possibility for greater success could be anticipated simply because we’ll be going in the direction of least resistance. So far, we’ve gone straight into the beam, and we’ve gone upstream. We have yet to go downstream.”

Zimmer lauded this suggestion. “Absolutely brilliant! So far, the beam has rejected our efforts to penetrate its realm. Perhaps we could sneak in a paddle-sized particle that simply goes with the flow.”

Looking at his watch, he concluded, “0450 hours, Team. Let’s get this last paddle going. If we can inject it stably into the flow, then we’ll be able to get some rest while we let the fresh morning recruits track its progress.”

Least resistance appeared to be just the secret sauce that was needed for this one last paddle. Particle impact was a bit lighter than with any of the first eleven. But most importantly, as mission control nudged it farther into the beam, they saw it penetrate to depths of 50, 60, 70 miles. Particle impact was growing, but there was reserved optimism among many as this paddle had set a record among all twelve for depth of penetration. There was a growing concern, however, on the part of GUIDANCE.

“We’re experiencing acceleration on the paddle, inducing a velocity greater than desired. 750 km/hr… 925 km/hr.”

“GUIDO,” Zimmer blurted quickly, “please put full reverse thrust possible to slow deceleration. We need to maintain constant velocity in order to maximize our depth and data collection.”

“Roger that, FLIGHT, full reverse thrusters engaged, but please note that reverse thrust will only provide one tenth of the acceleration force capable with the forward direction. Acceleration continuing. 1260 km/hr. We’re losing ground, FLIGHT. Please advise.”

“GUIDANCE, we need to turn the paddle around, face it upstream and then apply full forward thrust to counter the force of acceleration. We need to rotate such that the plane of the paddle is parallel to the flow.”

“FLIGHT, we’re starting to notice a new vector of direction. It looks like the paddle is starting to take on a corkscrew trajectory. It will be difficult to coordinate a full parallel rotation.”

“Negative, GUIDANCE. I also see the corkscrew rotation, but this is accompanied by a paddle roll that is coordinated with the rotation. Look. The face of the paddle is constantly facing the center. Apparently, the corkscrew is because particle impact has started to roll the paddle counter-clockwise. We absolutely must rotate now… as parallel as possible please.”

“Working on it, FLIGHT. Discontinuing reverse thrust and commencing rotation.”

After a grueling period of waiting and watching the trajectory continue to accelerate, the communication signal to reverse the direction of the paddle upstream was received. “1850 km/hr at commence of rotation. 35 degree rotation, 2300 km/hr. 55 degrees, 3200 km/hr. FLIGHT, without any thrust, we’re accelerating more rapidly now. 4800 km/hr, 78 degrees. FLIGHT, we are corkscrewing at a rate of one spiral per 17 minutes with downrange velocity of 7500 km/hr, engaging full forward thrust. It appears as if full forward thrust is doing little to decrease the rate of acceleration. Velocity still increasing to 9800 km/hr. 11,650 km.”

In nearly perfect synchrony, the voice of the GUIDANCE officer ceased with the communication of paddle twelve as the image and data on the wall monitor went perfectly black.

The clock in the conference room ticked loudly against the quiet and dejected mood present. The time showed that it was 0610 hours. Three heads hung low with as much disappointment as fatigue when the door opened slowly to allow the entrance of the quickly-aging Carlton Zimmer. He took a seat at the table, and his team of pale-faced research students awaited his instruction.

“In less than twelve hours, Team, we’ve managed to burn through twelve paddles, and are we any closer to solving this mystery than before?”

Heads shook in defeat.

“Do you mean to tell me that all three of you missed the most important discovery of the century—perhaps the millennium?” A smile grew on his face while he studied his students. Reyd leaned forward with opened mouth. Kath brushed her long hair aside and cocked her head as if to hear better. Then, the smile grew more serious, as he looked towards Joram, who blushed slightly and tried to avoid eye contact with all of his team members.

“I’m not exactly sure what’s troubling you, Joram, but if it is nearly as difficult as what is troubling me about this, then I sympathize with your situation deeply.”

Zimmer walked slowly to the other side of the table, hands clasped behind his back, and head lowered slightly. Pacing the length of the table two or three times, he weighed the exact words that he should use to explain his theory.

“You see—” he started slowly, still pacing, still looking down, “I’m just not sure how I’m going to be able to convince the world—” A deep, raspy sigh emerged as he stopped, leaned towards the three concerned graduate students, and placed his hands on the table.

“—that we have just discovered the tail of the first superluminal comet—the only celestial body ever observed in the history of man to travel faster than the speed of light.”



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