The Orthogonal Galaxy

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Chapter 6

On his second day of Zimmer’s class, Joram was working his Digital Note Tablet much harder than he did on the first day. He was soaking up every word, every thought, which the professor had for the class. Sitting at his left once again, Kath also found herself scribbling frantically, and enjoying the concepts placed before them.

“Over the next several weeks,” started the professor, “we’ll be studying various examples of the different types of galaxies. We’ll discuss how and why they form their characteristic shapes, and compare and contrast these in vast details.

“You should know,” attested Zimmer as he paced in front of the class with his wireless lapel microphone broadcasting his lesson clearly to the entire class, “that there are three major classifications of galaxies. These are spiral, elliptical, and irregular.

“Spiral galaxies are perhaps the best known of these, and this is certainly because our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is indeed a spiral galaxy. However, the photos that you may have seen of spiral galaxies come from those which may be indicative to the Milky Way, but certainly do not mirror our own galaxy. For obvious reasons, it is rather difficult to acquire a detailed image of our own galaxy, since there are no spacecraft far enough away which might give us a portrait of our own system. Nevertheless, there are several superb computer renderings that depict our galaxy as shown on this slide.”

The professor then gestured behind him, where a computer-generated image of the Milky Way was depicted for the class.

“As you can notice from this image, there is a bar of stars which emanate from either side of the extremely bright galactic center of our galaxy. These bars eventually give way to several spiral arms. This type of galaxy is called, appropriately enough, a barred-spiral galaxy. There are others, as the one in this next image, which do not demonstrate this type of barring effect. In the Hubble Classification, we designate spiral galaxies with the letter ‘S’, and barred-spiral galaxies with the letters ‘SB.’”

At this point, the professor advanced through a series of slides demonstrating other types of galaxies. The class took fastidious notes as Professor Zimmer rattled off a quick and elementary overview of galaxies. This was a graduate class, so he would have to quickly launch into great details about the makeup and classification of galaxies, so he was brief in his introduction.

“Now that I have described to you the various classifications of galaxies in the known universe,” Professor Zimmer gestured to a screen where a slide was being projected, “it is prudent for us to begin our study of each type. We will begin, appropriately enough, with our own galaxy, the Milky Way.”

The professor was interrupted here by the opening of door to the back of the planetarium. He looked up to see Dean Scoville enter and assume a standing position in the same exact place as last time.

Joram whispered to Kath, “That guy is making a habit out of disrupting the professor right at the end of class.”

“That guy,” breathed Kath lowly, covering her mouth to be less conspicuous, “is Dean Scoville.”

Joram’s head whipped back again to see a rather urgent look on Scoville’s face. “He looks—” Trailing off, he recalled the awkward episode that occurred on Monday, and snapped a worried glance up to Zimmer. Fortunately, the professor did not notice the two friends’ discussion, but instead looked intently at the dean. The two seemed to exchange knowing glances for a moment before the professor turned back to his class.

“But that discussion,” began the professor, “will begin on Friday. Also, please take a look at the course website for the first set of selected readings. We will begin discussion on those readings next week. Class dismissed.”

Rather than wait at the back of the class this time, Dean Scoville swept down the stairs and onto the stage to meet up quickly with Zimmer. Joram watched the pair intently, while the rest of the class turned off their note tablets, and fumbled for their backpacks. There was no exchange of words as the two met up. Instead, Scoville gave a slight nod and gestured towards the door in the back of the room where the two swiftly disappeared from sight.

“What do you think that was all about?” Joram asked Kath.

“Huh?” Kath asked looking up at Joram as she zipped her pack. “Oh, you mean Scoville and Zimmer? Don’t know… it looked pretty important though.” Then, shrugging off the incident, she continued, “Hey, I’m thirsty. Let’s go get something to drink.”

As they left the planetarium, Joram looked back towards the closed door as if expecting to see it reopen or otherwise gain some knowledge as to the urgent departure of the two professors. Realizing that he would gain no further insight, he shrugged his shoulders and bounded up the stairs to rejoin Kath.

At Johnson Space Center, two engineers sat quietly in a control room where panels of computer screens monitored activity on Camp Mars. The main screen contained an image of the camp as captured from a digital camera mounted on a satellite orbiting the planet. Other screens contained various waveforms and pulses which monitored environmental and meteorological activity. Side-by-side screens titled Boronov and O’Ryan contained the vital signs of the two astronauts. Another charted the progress of the Shuttle Nevada recently departed from the crater and heading on a direct bearing for the Moon.

Staneck Rodgers and Physon Edwards had worked this station together for years. They were intimately familiar with the operations and mission of the astronauts on Camp Mars.

“Hey, now that Ayman’s up in space, it looks like everything is stable here,” announced Rodgers. “I’m going to go use the rest room. Be back in a few minutes.”

“Sure, no problem,” Edwards agreed. “I’ll stand watch. It should be pretty boring for a couple of days, while Boronov shows O’Ryan the ropes.”

As the door shut behind Staneck, Physon received a communication from Mars: “Boronov to Mission Control. The Nevada has successfully taken off and we are heading to fuel tank number one for pressure gauge malfunction assessment and repair.”

Physon leaned back in his chair and cradled his hands behind his head. “Yep... it’s gonna get boring around here until mission operations resume next week.”

After a few minutes of idle daydreaming and casual monitoring of the data, Physon’s life got less boring very quickly, as he heard a pulsing beep coincide with an alarm light on control panel in front of him. He leaned forward to examine the alarm.

“Odd,” he said to himself. “I’ve never seen that alarm malfunction before.”

The alarm read “Satellite Two Communication Failure.”

Within moments, another pulsating sound: “Satellite Three Communication Failure.” With this alarm the main screen showing the video image of the Camp Mars crater went blank.

With the blackness of the screen ahead of him, Physon leaned forward in his seat, his mind reeling at this puzzling chain of events. He considered the events. “That’s not good… what could cause two satellite link failures within moments…”

Physon was trained to not panic in these situations. False alarms were part of the business of inter-galactic communications. Solar events, asteroid eclipses, even the Earth’s own magnetic field would occasionally interrupt the otherwise weak signals emanating from the Mars satellites.

Quickly, however, Physon was required to enter a state of panic, because a litany of alarms went off simultaneously, and all of the monitors on the wall went dark. “Satellite One Communication Failure,” “Astronaut One Vitals,” “Astronaut Two Vitals,” “Satellite Array Failure,” “Audio Comm Failure,” “Shuttle Comm Failure.”

The room was awash with flashing lights and beeps and buzzes of various volumes. Physon quickly muted all of the alarm sounds and reached for his two-way radio.

“Stan, do you copy?” Physon voiced eagerly into the radio.

“Yeah, Physon. What’s up?”

“Where are you at? I need you to come quickly.”

“I’m on my way back right now. I just stopped at the break room for a cup of coffee. What’s wrong, buddy?”

“We have a massive communication failure with Camp Mars right now. I’ve never seen a comm interruption of this caliber.”

“Be right there.” Physon’s voice and sprinting footsteps echoed with anticipation, as he returned his radio to his holster and raced back to the control room. Within moments, he threw open the door and found Staneck quickly pacing the length of the control panel to assess the situation.

“What have we got, Stan?” Physon asked eagerly for a briefing of the situation.

“Three satellite failure alarms, and a complete link loss to the surface array.”

“So, we are still receiving signals from one of the satellites?” queried Physon as he rubbed his forehead with his hand.

“Yeah. Sat Four is still online, but we’re only receiving heartbeats, since it’s not in range of the camp.”

“What’s its orbital ETA to line of sight?”

Physon raced to the other end of the panel, assessed the current orbit of Satellite Four, looked at his watch for the current time, punched a few numbers into the computer, and returned the results. “Sixteen hours, thirty-three minutes.” Physon looked up at his colleague with concern.

Stan sighed deeply and shook his head yet maintained a calm voice. “You mean the only satellite we got yapping right now is on the opposite side of the planet?”

“Pretty much,” confessed Physon bleakly.

Stan ran to the control panel, quickly scanned the situation and immediately picked up a phone and dialed a four-digit extension.

“Vurim, Edwards here. We have a serious communication failure. You better get in here ASAP.”

Staneck hung up the phone and looked up at Physon, who appeared sullen. With eyes wide open and perspiration forming around his temples, he raised his eyebrows at his colleague questioningly.

“I know, buddy,” Physon’s voice trailed off with a hint of concern. “You know, these things rarely implicate something catastrophic, but darn it all, if it doesn’t get your heart racing, and turn your hair gray…”

Physon was distracted as his eyes scanned the control room panels. “Stan, come take a look at this.”

Stan started when he turned his head and saw Physon grow pale, a horror-stricken stare flaring from his wide-open eyes. Stan was at Physon’s side in just a couple of steps and looked at the panel that Physon had motioned towards—the panel labeled O’Ryan.

“Had you noticed O’Ryan’s vitals just before the comm failure?” Physon asked his partner.

“No, I… I hadn’t,” he confessed. “It shows that his heart and breathing rates increased rather abruptly about… oh… 30 seconds before the comm failure. But there’s nothing unusual about Boronov’s vitals.”

“Look closely,” Physon rebutted, pointing to the ECG waveforms. “Right here, it looks like Boronov skipped a beat. No racing like O’Ryan, but it looks like there is a synchronized event… perhaps something that startled the pair.”

“What do you make of it?” asked the junior engineer.

Physon could do little more than shake his head slowly and shrug his shoulders in dismay.

After a brief pause, Stan asked his more experienced partner, “Weren’t you in the control room when mission 79 had to be aborted?”

“Yeah,” said Physon breaking into a forced smile. “That was a grueling three-day event that taught me to keep a level head and a stock of Tums on hand.”

“But those guys were only a hundred thousand miles from Earth?” pointed out Stan. Our boys are millions of miles away right now, cut off from all communication, perhaps for quite a few hours.”

“Indeed.” Physon pointed out and reached inside a drawer. Then with a slight smile, he gave one last word to his younger partner. “Tums?” he reached his hand out to his companion with a tube of the antacid in a subdued, yet calming voice, hoping to alleviate some of the tension. He didn’t like the symptoms he was seeing at all, but he also knew that it was premature to jump to any conclusions, and also that there was nothing he could do about it at present.

With lengthened stride, Scoville rushed down the corridor leading away from the planetarium and back to his office.

“What is it, Ballard?” asked Zimmer who was lagging the dean by a couple of steps.

“I’ve got NASA on hold.”

At this, Professor Zimmer stopped dead in his tracks. Noticing that the sound of the extra pair of footsteps had ceased, Scoville turned back and looked at Zimmer.

“Are they cutting off the funding, Ballard?”

Ballard lowered his head and took a couple of steps back towards Zimmer. “No, no… it’s… it’s something… worse.” With the last word, his voice trailed off. He turned again, and restored to his former swift gait. “You’ll be briefed presently.”

They rushed into Scoville’s office and quickly took seats opposite of each other at a round conference table. A telephone with a blinking red light informed Zimmer of the urgent party waiting on the other end.

Taking the phone off of mute, Scoville announced their return. “Vurim, I’m back. I have Professor Zimmer with me. I believe that you two have met.”

“Yes, we have met,” answered Vurim affirmatively. “Dr. Zimmer, this is Vurim Gilroy. I’m the director of the Mars Mission here at Johnson Space Center.”

“Ah, yes. Dr. Gilroy. We met a few years ago at the International Conference on Modern Astrophysics, didn’t we? As I recall, you presented some results and conclusions from your first subterranean drilling explorations of Mars, right?”

“That is correct.”

“What can I do for you? I understand you have a matter of some urgency you wish to discuss with me?”

“Unfortunately, yes we do.” His voice was hushed, and an audibly deep breath ensued before he began his briefing.

“We are currently studying a set of data regarding a series of disturbing events which happened a few hours ago regarding our Mars mission. We hope you may be of assistance in brainstorming possible astronomical phenomena which might account for the singularities we have witnessed.”

“Ok,” said Zimmer attentively. “I’ll do what I can to help.” Zimmer’s gaze was fixed on Scoville, as if searching his expressing for clues. Scoville’s shrugged his shoulders and shook his head to convey that he knew next to nothing yet himself.

“First of all,” stated Gilroy hesitantly, “we’d like to request your presence here at Johnson where we are convening a team of experts to examine the data first-hand.”

Scoville looked up at Zimmer, twisted his head, threw up his hands, and nodded slowly. “Well, I just began a new term of courses and research here at the university. Any leave would have to be approved of by Dean Scoville.”

“He has assured us full cooperation in this matter,” announced Gilroy in a business-like manner.

Zimmer looked at Scoville in a puzzled manner and tapped the mute button. “Ballard?”

“Carlton, we’re treading lightly on the funding for your research. We need to bend over backwards for these guys. I’ll be sure to cover for your class and research teams. It’ll only be for a few days.”

After taking the phone off of mute, Zimmer continued. “Ok. When do you need me to leave?”

“I have a chartered plane that will be landing in Burbank at 1:20 PM Pacific Time.”

Zimmer looked at his watch, which read 12:17 PM. “Why, that’s just an hour away. I’ll need some time to pack and…”

“No packing!” Gilroy interrupted shortly. “We’ll get everything you need here. You can communicate those needs from the airplane once you’re in the air.”

“Ok,” agreed Zimmer in an overwhelmed manner. “Can I ask what the urgency is all about?”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible. We are conversing over an unsecured communication channel, and this is a matter that is currently classified as secret… You do still have a security clearance, Professor?”

“Yes, yes. I’ll depart for the airport immediately.”

“Thank you for your understanding and support. We’ll talk in a few hours.”

The phone went dead.

“Ballard, what is going on?”

“I don’t know anymore than you, Carlton. But, my hunch tells me that something has gone wrong on Mars. NASA doesn’t operate like this unless there is genuine concern for the well-being of their astronauts.”

“But, why me? I’m an astrophysicist, not an aerospace engineer. If there’s a problem millions of miles away, what possible help will I be?”

“I don’t have answers for you, Carlton. But, once you find out what is going on, I’d appreciate hearing from you. I’ll need to know what arrangements need to be made here in the department during your absence.”

“Will do, Ballard.” Zimmer stood up and bid farewell to the dean. He disappeared through the office door and rushed down the corridor for his rendezvous with the jet that had been arranged to pick him up a couple of hours before he himself knew of it. Like Scoville, Zimmer was beginning to fear the worst. NASA was too eager, too quick, too quiet to not cause these two CalTech astronomers significant concern.

Professor Zimmer landed in Houston at 6:15 PM. Dr. Gilroy had a car waiting for him to quickly usher him to Johnson Space Center. Gilroy was waiting on the curb for the astronomer when he arrived. He opened the door for Zimmer and shook his hand warmly and gratefully.

Zimmer noticed that he showed signs of fatigue and stress. His complexion was pale, and his eyes deeply red. As they shook hands, the professor could note that Gilroy’s hand was tremulous and sweaty.

With a subdued voice, he said, “Thank you for coming, professor. I will escort you through security and into a conference room, where we have compiled a set of data that we hope you can decipher for us.”

“I certainly hope that I may be of assistance to you, Doctor,” started Zimmer.

The conference room was ample and bright. Entering through a glass door, the professor noted an open feel to the room, because of the windows which wrapped around three sides of the conference room. Along the far wall, which contained no windows, a long counter contained coffee pots, cups, napkins, and a water dispenser. In the center of the room, a long, elliptical table had seating for 12 people, and every seat except for two was occupied. Gilroy offered the professor a seat at the end of the table, and took the seat immediately to his right.

“Professor Zimmer,” announced Gilroy, “I’d like to introduce you to a few members of our team. “Starting to your left, we have Staneck Rodgers, Physon Edwards, Kinnet Brothers, and Christian Popolous. These men are mission control specialists for the Mars Mission. Following is our team of engineers. Lawton Jacobsen is our lead telecommunications hardware engineer. Then we have two of our top aerospace engineers, Sharli Cartwright and Cordic Huford, both from Kennedy. Our materials scientist, Lane Wells, is from Ames. And I believe you may know our Martian experts, Draven Sillieu, and Marselline Jones.”

“Stan, would you please explain to the team the reason why we have convened this meeting?”

“Certainly,” stated Stan with a deep sigh. He slowly lifted himself out of his seat and progressed towards the end of the room opposite of where he unrolled a large map depicting Earth and Mars. Several post-it notes of different color were placed around the map, but Zimmer could not read the writing on any of them.

“At 07:22 this morning local time, an alarm went off indicating that one of the four Martian communication satellite links demonstrated a failure here.” Rodgers gestured with a laser pointer to one of the post-it notes on the map. “In three seconds, we lost comm with another satellite here, and this one stopped communicating about two seconds later. For some reason, satellite number four, which was right here at the time of the failures, has continued to transmit, and is currently located here. At first, we assumed that there was an electromagnetic incident which took the satellites offline, but typically, interference lasts a few minutes.” Stan paused to look around the room to see how this information was being received.

“Have you calculated a correlation with the timing of the loss of failure?” asked Zimmer.

“Yes,” answered Rodgers. “And what we found was that all three satellites failed at exactly the same moment in time. The fact that we observed the alarms at different times is due to the differences in the distance of each satellite from the Earth as well as the latency of the various signals traveling over those distances. Satellite Two was closest to the earth, while Satellite One was the farthest. As a result, we received these just moments apart due to the extra distance required to reach the Earth.”

“I trust they all operate off of the same software code base?” Zimmer quizzed suggestively.

“Yes that is true,” Stan’s gaze met the floor while his voice tapered off.

Physon stood quickly to relieve his partner. “Professor, we have eliminated the possibility of a software bug causing the failure at the same exact clock cycle.”

Zimmer’s forehead wrinkled as he gestured for the mission specialist to continue with the details.

“You see, less than thirty minutes before the incident, there was a shift change. An astronaut departed Camp Mars in a shuttle, and we also lost communication with him as well.”

Zimmer leaned forward in his seat as if to better comprehend this last statement.

“Communication loss with the shuttle is also calculated to be synchronized to the same exact moment in time.” Physon paused to compose his words precisely. “The clock in the shuttle is not synchronized precisely to the satellite array… and the shuttle software team was completely isolated from the satellite software team. In other words, the software code is entirely different for the shuttle. The probability of a synchronized bug between two entirely different pieces of complicated software code… well, it’s just not practical to suggest such a correlation.”

Zimmer stood on his feet and turned away from the table. Stroking his forehead and cheek, it was clear that his mind was working feverishly. He wheeled around quickly. “A visual… we must get a visual. Surely we can see the satellites and shuttle from a terrestrial-based observatory. It’s not all that far to Mars.”

Vurim chimed in from his seat. “Madrid has been working on that for the last several hours, but they have not been able to identify a visual on any satellite or on the shuttle.”

“Well, their results are bogus! You have told me that there is still one satellite which is communicating. They simply must get a visual on that one.”

“At present, it is too close to the horizon of Mars to pick up a visual on it,” clarified Vurim. “But we should be able to do so in about two hours.” He looked at his watch. “Maybe a bit less than that.”

“Madrid should send us their data… we need an extra pair of eyes on it,” suggested Zimmer.

“We’ve got a team of astronomers assembled upstairs… they’re looking at the data right now,” claimed Vurim.

Zimmer took a new line of suggestive data collection. “Any clues from the data of the remaining satellite? I trust that it is able to communicate with the camp? Can it give us a visual of Mars?” Zimmer brainstormed.

“We’ve been looking at images of the planet, but nothing looks out of the ordinary… Well, there is a slight dust storm that we’re noticing, but that is not unusual. What we’re waiting for right now is for Number Four to get into range of Camp Mars. Presently, the Camp is on the opposite side of Mars. Earthrise on Camp Mars won’t be for another seven hours, but Satellite Four will have a visual lock in about five hours… we should have at least visual data of the Camp around midnight in order to check on the status of the astronauts there.”

“You’ve been thorough in your analysis, Doctor Vurim,” Zimmer admitted. “I’m not sure how I can be of help.”

Vurim pleaded with Zimmer, “We need theories, Professor… astronomical, physical theories on what could have caused an event like this to occur. We’re at an absolute loss to explain this anomaly.”

“I think we’re going to need more data,” announced Zimmer. “I’d like to take a look at the Madrid data, while we are waiting for Sat Four to get in range. Then, I will want to do some study myself this evening at Palomar. But first, I have a few phone calls to make.”

Joram Anders rushed up the steps of the apartment complex, bypassing every other step with great strides. At the third floor, he rapped on the door intently. Kath opened the door slowly and playfully.

“Who is it?” she said with a cheerful voice.

Joram gasped for breath. “Ah, Kath… it’s me, Joram.”

“Joram? I’m sorry, Joram who?” She tried to be coy, but gave herself away with a snicker as she completed the inquiry.

“Ok, Kath,” Joram shook his head. “You win… I owe you an apology.” Then with a deep breath, he let out, “I’m sorry.”

The door opened wide revealing a very light apartment. Joram’s shaded his eyes for a moment in part to get used to the light, but mainly to get a less blinding visual on his new friend, who he admitted to himself appeared more and more attractive each time he saw her. This time was no different. Kath looked as beautiful as ever, and he wondered if his tardiness didn’t allow her more time to prepare herself for perfection.

Shyly, he looked down at the floor. “I’m really sorry, Kath.” Then looking up to meet her eyes, he admitted, “I got so caught up in reviewing my notes from the day that I completely lost track of time.”

“Why didn’t you answer your cell phone?” she asked.

“I had my Ear Cups on,” he explained.

“Oooh,” Kath took a step back. “You have a pair of Ear Cups? I’m starting to see more and more of those, but I’m not sure if I like them.”

“Why not?” asked Joram.

“They’re so… so…, “Kath strained for the right word, “unfashionable.”

Joram laughed. “They’re not supposed to be fashionable… they’re supposed to be functional. My parents got me a pair for my graduation this year. I was so surprised, because they are really not very technical people… I didn’t even know they knew about them, since they’re so new! They’re much more comfortable that head phones or ear buds because they just cup right over your ear, and the slight suction effect keeps them on snug. The sound quality is amazing, and I’m surprised at how well they cancel the surrounding noise… which is the reason why my parents got them for me. They were all, ‘You know it’s gonna be noisy around that college. You should have something to help you study without all of the distractions.’”

“Well, I’ll just have to try them for myself sometime,” Kath conceded. “But you still won’t catch me with them at the gym.”

“No,” Joram chuckled. “I guess I wouldn’t.”

“Well, let me just grab my purse and we’ll be on our way then.”

Joram waited outside the open door, but he studied the apartment, looking for clues about Kath’s interests and tastes. It was sparsely decorated, a common practice among all college students, but it looked comfortable nevertheless.

“So, I hear Louie’s makes the best pizza,” Joram offered as they strode together down the stairs.

“It’s really, really good,” Kath admitted. “I’m sure I must be in there once a week. Goodness, I’m starving just thinking about it.”

“Well, you wouldn’t be if your dinner partner would’ve been on time.”

Kath touched him lightly on the forearm. “It’s ok, Joram, really. I understand.”

At Louie’s, Joram was in heaven. The pizza was indeed delicious and Kath’s company was simply delightful. He couldn’t help feel a little jealous for all of the guys at the place that seemed to know her. He had thought about how his life had changed so quickly. Why, just a week ago, he was still on his rural farm outside of Wichita, Kansas helping himself to a hearty plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes before heading out to admire the stars in the night sky. Now here he was in bustling Pasadena, California, enjoying the company of a lovely young lady in a very active and trendy restaurant. He snapped himself out of the daydream.

“So there I was,” Kath continued in the middle of an animated story. “drenching wet, and the police officer asks me, ‘is that what you normally go swimming in?’”

Joram forced a laugh, wishing he had actually paid more attention to what must have been a fascinating tale. Just as Kath’s raucous laughter began to subside, Joram’s cell phone rang. He pulled it out of his pants pocket and looked at the caller ID.

“Oh sure,” Kath tilted her head slyly and allowed a wisp of hair to cover her winking eye. “In your quiet apartment you can’t hear my phone call, and now in one of the most noisy restaurants in Pasadena, you can hear it just fine.”

Joram smiled with feigned irritation. “I don’t know who it is… it’s a local call. I wonder who it could be.”

“Well, the best way to find out is to answer it,” Kath allowed the distraction.

“Hello,” Joram answered jovially. The smile eroded from his face, and he sat upright in his chair.

“Um, yes, professor, right… um… hello… how are you on this fine evening?” He winced in embarrassment while hearing how lamely he had greeted the caller.

His grew quiet and pale.

“I’m sorry… it’s a little noisy here.” He covered one ear as if to hear better. “Did you say tonight?”

He looked at his watch and appeared ready to rebut, but thought better of it. “Where? But, I don’t understand… Well, okay, I’ll see you then. Good Bye.”

After a moment of tense silence, Kath attempted to ease any discomfort that Joram may have been feeling. “You know if you’re going to hold your mouth open like that, you might as well start on another piece of pizza.”

He decided to use his mouth in a different way—by explaining to Kath the mysterious nature of the phone call.

“That was Professor Zimmer!” He said in confused excitement. “He said that I need to…”

His explanation was cut short. Now it was Kath who had a call on her phone. “Hold that thought… I’ll just be a moment.”

“Hello,” she answered.

Her mouth dropped as she cupped her hand over the microphone. “It’s Professor Zimmer,” she whispered in amazement to Joram, who threw up his hands in amazement and leaned in over the table as if proximity to Kath would help him solve the mystery. He listened intently as the conversation continued.

“Tonight?”

“Wha…? Where?”

“What’s this all about, Professor?”

She stared at Joram intently, searching for him to give her clues about the situation. He could only stare blankly into her eyes while shaking his head.

“Okay… uh… bye then.”

She slowly placed her phone back in her purse.

“Tonight?” Joram inquired on the edge of his seat.

“Uh-huh,” She mouthed back.

“At the Burbank Airport?”

“Uh-huh.”

“The private terminal.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Rendezvous with a helicopter?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Heading to Paris, France?”

“Uh-huh... No, wait.” Kath collected herself. A smile slowly appeared on her face as she admired Joram’s trick to pull her back to reality.

“No, Mount Palomar, silly… the same thing he told you, right?”

“Uh-huh,” Joram playfully mocked Kath with a falsetto voice intended to mimic her responses to him.

“Very funny, Joram Anders.” She looked at her watch. “We have to get going… we don’t have much time to pack before Zimmer meets us at the airport… What do you think this is all about, Joram?”

“I don’t know, but what the heck… a helicopter ride to a mountain observatory for some star-gazing… sounds wonderful to me. Let’s go!”

“Yeah, it sounds rather…” Kath caught herself and blushed slightly as she pulled the word “romantic” off of her lips and responded, “Rather wonderful.”

Kath and Joram paused as they entered the helicopter terminal together. Kath pulled a roller bag behind her, while Joram had a duffel bag on his shoulder. They both looked around for Professor Zimmer who was to meet them here.

“I’ll just check at the counter,” Joram said.

With sleepy eyes, Kath watched Joram approach the counter and engage a young man on the other side. The young man motioned to his right and exchanged some words and a smile with Joram, who nodded and turned back towards Kath.

“We need to wait in room 109 right over there,” Joram offered as the two continued towards the meeting room.

As they entered the small, well-lit room, they saw another individual slumped in a seat. As he heard them enter, he stood up and peered at them, straining to identify them as someone he knew. Joram was the first to recognize the individual as the person who entered the planetarium on the first day of class when he was relaxing in his fully-reclined seat.

“You’re in Professor Zimmer’s A21 class, aren’t you?” Joram offered his right hand.

“Yes,” said the young man accepting Joram’s firm handshake. “As I recall, you were the first person in the room on Monday weren’t you?”

Joram blushed, realizing that he had been caught off guard that first day of class as he had expected.

“Yes,” he chuckled. “I suspect you caught me in a rather vulnerable position there didn’t you.”

Kath cocked her head slightly and gave Joram an inquisitive glance.

“I arrived early to class that first day, so that I could acquaint myself with the planetarium. I was experimenting with the controls of the seat, and got a little comfortable when I reclined it all the way.”

At first, Kath snickered, but she quickly regained her control… for just a moment before she had a chance to visualize Joram being caught in that position. The thought, coupled with her fatigue, made her burst into such a fit of laughter that her new companion joined in heartily as well.

Joram rolled his eyes and nodded, blushing even more.

“I’m sorry, Joram,” Kath said. “I know it’s not funny, I just…”

“It’s ok, Kath,” accepted Joram. “Actually, it is pretty funny, so I don’t fault you.”

Kath now turned to her classmate, “I’m Kath Mirabelle.”

“Oh, I’m Reyd Eastman,” their fellow student introduced himself throwing his right hand out in front of him quickly. “It’s nice to meet both of you.”

“Reyd,” Joram grabbed his colleague’s hand and bypassed the chit chat, “do you know why we’re all here?”

“No, I have no idea, Professor Zimmer just said…” Reyd was cut off abruptly.

“I can tell you why we’re here,” announced Professor Zimmer, looking rather haggard from his second flight of the day. “But please follow me to the helicopter first.”

The trio of graduate students retrieved their luggage and obeyed the professor quickly and quietly as they proceeded out of the room and down the hall of the terminal.

For an aging professor, the trio of students was surprised at the quickness of his gait. After briskly catching up to him, Joram’s curiosity won out over discretion. He turned his face towards Zimmer and asked, “Professor, what is this about?”

“I’m not at liberty to say here in the terminal, Joram,” the professor looked straight ahead and continued his rapid pace. “While the situation was declassified just moments before my plane landed, NASA is scheduling a press conference later this evening, and I am not at liberty to speak of the matter here. I’ll tell you everything once we’re aboard the helicopter.”

Joram tried to piece the clues together. Situation? NASA? Press conf… Joram looked at his watch… a press conference later this evening? It was already 11:45 PM. Why would NASA schedule a press conference this late in the evening? Something was obviously very urgent. And then, didn’t the professor say something about a plane landing? But he was just in class with him about 12 hours ago. Where could he have gone—and returned—so suddenly?

The professor continued his pace with the students following along with him silently all the way to the tarmac where a helicopter’s blades were already whirring overhead. A pair of airport personnel rushed out to meet the party and assist the group and their luggage into the helicopter. A pilot assisted Kath into the cockpit first and then helped Joram, Reyd, and lastly the professor. Each seat had a headset on it, and each member placed it on their heads. After the pilot gave some brief instructions, all of the passengers were harnessed into their seat and clearance was granted from air traffic controllers for departure.

The helicopter lifted slowly off the ground, and the three students gazed out of their windows to see the lights of Southern California stretch to the horizon in nearly all directions. A smattering of lights could also be seen in the mountains to the north of the city. They watched until the ground disappeared under a dense marine layer and soon all that could be seen was the flashing lights of the helicopter itself and the moonless sky filled with a vast array of stars of various brightness and color. Joram admired the scene overhead. He had only been in Southern California for a week, and he was already missing the expansive, star-filled sky over his home in Kansas.

Joram looked back over at the professor who was studying the contents of a manila folder intently. After a moment he looked up at the pilot, who was engaged with final departure communication from the airport. The pilot looked back at Zimmer and nodded.

Reaching for a button on his headset, he engaged his microphone. Looking at his perplexed trio, he spoke, “Can you all hear me okay?” They each nodded and leaned towards the professor with intent curiosity, as if by proximity they would be able to hear him through the noise of the helicopter better.

“You’ll recall that Dean Scoville came into my classroom today as lecture was finishing up. He led me to his office, where I was given a very urgent assignment from NASA. I have been to Johnson Space Center, where they have briefed me on a situation of utmost concern.” He paused, not sure how to continue. “It is our lot to solve a rather perplexing astronomical puzzle as quickly as possible, which is why I have summoned the three of you to travel with me to Palomar tonight.”

He caught himself with that statement, “By the way, I have failed to thank you for your willingness to do this without sufficient preparation or explanation. My apologies for not being clearer… I had to be brief on the phone because this situation was classified when I spoke to you.”

Another longer pause ensued, as he was not sure he wanted to precede his briefing with the following introduction. “There are at least three astronauts whose lives could be in jeopardy at this very moment.”

At that, Kath gave a start, and covered her gasping mouth with her hands. Joram leaned back in his seat, horrified at the implication. Reyd dropped his head in realization of the seriousness of the situation.

Zimmer gave his students the details as they had been conveyed to him by Gilroy’s task force.

“Now, we had hoped to have a visual on the camp by now, seeing how the lone communicating satellite is directly overhead. However, a severe dust storm has completely obscured visibility of 60% of the surface of the planet. Even so, the satellite should be able to communicate with equipment at the camp, but…” with this Zimmer lowered his head, “… but, I’m afraid that there is no signal. Now, the timing is not as desirable as we’d like,” Zimmer began to wrap up his briefing. “At this late hour, we will only have a few good hours to collect data.”

With an introduction to the situation out of the way, Professor Zimmer instructed his graduate students in the plans which he had devised on the plane trip back from Houston. “Joram, you will accompany Reyd, who has familiarity with the setup at Palomar. Reyd received his bachelor’s degree last Spring in Computer Science with a minor in Astronomy. He will be able to work the system to process the data in any manner we need. Kath, as the only meteorologist currently in the program, I have called on you to study the dynamics of the dust storm. This is not a storm of any typical nature that has ever been observed occurring on our neighbor. I, in the meantime, will control the telescope to collect what I believe will be the most useful set of data for us to process. For the time being, I advise you to get what little rest you can before we land at Palomar. If you have any questions, just press the red button on your headset right here.”

Kath was the first to deploy her microphone. “Professor, you are correct that I have studied meteorology, but only as it pertains to Earth. I have no notion of the atmospheric dynamics on Mars to be able to adequately perform this study.”

“I suspect that you will learn quickly, Miss Mirabelle,” began Zimmer, “As soon as we touch down, you will have complete access to a team of Martian meteorologists in Israel. They are prepared to teleconference with you and have been given express instructions to give you full access to their knowledge. Ask them any question that you need. Call upon them for any report of data that may help. Your job is to communicate to the team assembled at Palomar any and all details as they unravel from the team in Israel.”

Kath nodded her head. She did not feel adequate to the task, but also did not want to let the professor down, and she certainly did not want to let down the three astronauts whose lives could depend on the teamwork of everybody involved on their behalf.

“Any more questions?” probed the professor.

Joram had many, but he knew that he could defer many of them to Reyd once they were on the ground, so as to not distract the professor from any data processing or theorizing on the matter for the remainder of the flight.

After a moment of silence, the professor returned to his seat, reclined the seat back slightly, and rested his head, heaving a burdened sigh as he closed his eyes.

Kath, who sat next to Joram took off her headset and spoke above the noisy helicopter into Joram’s ear. “How exactly are we supposed to rest with this racket?”

Joram reached under his seat and pulled out a pair of objects from his duffel bag. “You said that you were wanting to try these, and well… I thought they might come in handy for you on the flight.”

Kath smiled in amazement. In the little time that Joram had to pack for the trip, he was thoughtful enough to remember his Ear Cups… for her!

She placed them over her ears, and was quite shocked to discover that they worked amazingly well. She could hear almost nothing. In his ear, she said, “You’re wonderful, Joram Anders,” and proceeded to kiss him on the cheek.

The two exchanged a warm smile with each other before Kath got comfortable, resting her head on Joram’s broad shoulder. In an instant, she was asleep as if resting in her own bed, and not on a noisy helicopter bound for a mountain observatory 100 miles away.


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