Mercury Ice: The Seventh Coordinate (Book One)

By Michael D. Morrow

Sci-Fi, Action & adventure

Paperback, eBook

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1088
7 mins

Prologue

September 28, 1974

With bloodshot eyes and shaking hands, he found the group of 151 images he was looking for. He was well past the initial shock of what each image contained by now.

He craved a smoke, but the highly incendiary materials in the vault prevented that stress-reducing luxury. He took the ultrasonic film splicer down from the shelf. He had to make two flawless cuts to remove the images. Fusing the two celluloid ends back together had to look perfect and he took his time. Wisps of smoke emerged as the device evenly heated, melted, and sealed the delicate two ends. He finished up with an almost undetectable film seam.

After allowing the film to cool, he turned on the motor to rewind the reel, pulled the bundle off the machine, wiped it free of fingerprints with a handkerchief, and placed it back into its container, locking the lid. He then wiped down the container, the desk, the viewer and the splicer free of prints. He placed the cut film images into his inside coat pocket and left the room and building, encountering no one. He never signed in or out that night as required to enter the vault, violating the administration’s protocol.

Once back home, he walked to his backyard, pulled out the film and a match, lit the match and touched it lightly to the film material, watching the extremely combustible nitrocellulose film explode into ash. It was three times more combustible than paper. The stench from the burnt substance immediately adhered to his wool coat and would serve as a reminder to him for the next several days of his actions. With the match still burning, he lit a cigarette to calm himself and then he walked away.

But he knew it was only a matter of time—

Chapter One - July 2008

Climbing vertical on an old rusted ladder with your hands full even on a low gravity planet was still dangerous. Up he went with his homemade device. On Blue he would have weighed 160 pounds; only 61 here on Leven. Still a nasty high-impact fall if one was not paying attention and lost their balance.

Herff had his five-year old daughter’s full attention now. Darklin watched closely as he ascended with the small round metal dish and broadcast signal nozzle attached to a wooden pole in one hand and a coil of wire strung over his shoulder. She had one foot on the bottom rung in anticipation. This was exciting for her. When he stepped off onto the roof of the old backyard garden shed, she quickly scampered up to the top and watched him for half an hour as he secured, positioned and powered up the transmitter.

“There… done.”

“Is it on now daddy?”

“It’s on.” Herff smiled at her.

“You think we will hear from anyone from the sky soon?” she asked.

“I hope someone contacts us someday, time will tell… it might take a while. We will have to be patient.” He winked at her.

Back on the ground Darklin jumped up and down with delight and ran off to explore something else new.

Chapter Two - March 2019

The Allen Radio Telescope Array was located at the Hat Creek Observatory in the Cascade Mountains in Hat Creek, California. It was home to one of the listening posts of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Most of the SETI engineers, service technicians, and interns manning and servicing this array stayed at the Burney Falls Trailer Resort located on Highway 89 in the Dusty Campground in Hat Creek. It was a small trailer resort with a “big science history,” but the evenings were filled with beer, whiskey, and a party (or whatever the brainiacs of SETI deemed a party). The latest non-politically correct card game (along with copious amount of alcohol) was all the rage with the young SETI interns and technicians.

Biology graduate student, Kimberly Ann Evans, was in her final semester at the University of California, Berkeley when she received notification that she could complete her thesis, Survival and Adaptability of Microbes in Extreme Environments, while working a full-time internship at the Allen Array facility. Her shift was from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Kim had rented an old camper at the trailer resort five miles west of the array control building. The facility was SETI’s primary listening system for the stars, or as the non-believers said, “the listening post for little green men”.

Kim was close to finishing her thesis and largely bored with SETI. Week after week, she listened to nothing but static and some white noise, sounds that others before her had heard (again and again) and had documented continuously year after year. SETI employees pointed the listening equipment at new stars, as well as newly formed star systems. “Newly formed” in the sense that each star’s light was really only reaching Earth now; much of the light was ancient.

On this night in March, Kim had too little interest and too much late night coffee. Young SETI personnel desired to succeed in their field and had foreseen a successful involvement with SETI. However, it was quickly surmised, after that first few months of sheer boredom, that nothing tangible on extraterrestrial noise would surface during their watch. Most all left their internships disappointed.

Kim did enjoy the nighttime quiet, even with the soft static background live in her SETI headphones. She worked better when not around others, and the control room was the perfect place to write. She was ready to move on to a career and post-college interests. But tonight for whatever reason, she could not focus on her writing, only the static on the cosmic telephone line.
***

This particular night, Kim had hopped into her vintage Chevy Camaro, rebuilt by her father years ago, and had driven the five miles to the SETI main control building to relieve her intern counterpart. That intern had just completed an eighteen-hour shift and looked dead to the world. He had smiled at her walking past, mumbled “goodnight,” and quietly signed out in the attendance log.

On the nights that she was the listening technician on duty, she was in control of one of the most technologically advanced listening systems ever built. For one hour each shift, the intern technicians could move the audio dish listening array to several cosmic points of their own choosing, bypassing the pre-planned and computer programmed targets selected by other scientists and astronomers. The Orion Nebula was a favorite target of many of the techs, but Kim enjoyed listening to celestial objects closer to Earth and at times she chose to listen to the static generated by the eight neighboring planets themselves. (Pluto had made a comeback as a dwarf planet after the one so-called astronomer had kicked it to the curb years ago.) The planet Pluto—it was never up for debate in Kim’s mind. Nine planets orbited the sun. She had learned the planetary alignments years ago in grade school.

Her nightly galactic listening selections did depend on what celestial body was on the horizon. This evening, Kim had selected the North and South Polar Regions of the planets Mercury and Venus after listening to several of Jupiter’s moons in the earlier part of the week. Several of Jupiter’s moons had always generated some intense noise on the headphones, but each had done so for millions of years. Still, it was fun to listen to.

Kim slipped on a sweater, sat in the control chair, kicked her shoes off and pulled a blanket over herself. The control room was always cold to keep the high-powered electronics cool. Her free hour would be coming up in a few hours, and this would be her 64th attempt to find something—anything. Her internship lasted 120 days. But for right now, the pre-programmed route of coordinates continued along on its automated robotic path, and she simply monitored its progression.

Kim was at the controls of over 130 audio listening dishes scattered over a 30-mile radius of desert, and she began programming a range of her selected coordinates for later, choosing the planet Mercury first. She could only imagine the cost of the equipment and the price of the electrical power she now commanded with her fingertips, moving the array by simply typing numbers and then pressing the “Enter” key. The array would hold on a specific coordinate for a 20-second increment to listen before moving on to the next selected target.

It was now Kim’s free hour. It was around 2:00 a.m. on her shift when Mercury rose in the East-South-East horizon, and the dish arrays began their search on Mercury’s South Pole. She began listening:

Pop. Crackle. Hiss.

Most people would tire of this, and though growing weary of SETI, Kim still found it mesmerizing to listen to noise from a heavenly body. Only a few of the interns manually listened to the headphones anymore, opting for computer graphics instead. She considered the headphone listening a novelty and a privilege considering the high cost to the U.S. taxpayers for little to no reward. As far as listening to the other eight planets in the solar system, no tech did that anymore, and when other interns found out what she was doing with her free array hour, many laughed at her and rolled their eyes. She didn’t care. She was enjoying herself. To hell with them! she thought.

The sounds of the planets had been listened to extensively by NASA in the 1950’s and 1960’s when the scare of the Roswell alien crash and little green men from Mars had prompted a public panic. The fickle American public subsequently became bored with the UFO phenomena in the 1970’s. Social media and internet clickbait now provided more readily available time-wasting activities than ever. SETI’s and NASA’s current budget funding was minimal. Unfortunately, the current U.S. President, Kenneth Noland, III, had inherited a large budget deficit from the former presidential administration and lowering it was his main priority. He worried little about space exploration and travel. Kim somewhat understood due to the circumstances, but felt that space research should be elevated a rung or two more up the annual budget ladder.

The array moved and locked on Kim’s multiple coordinates for fifteen minutes in the South Pole and then the computer automatically moved the array’s sights to Mercury’s North Pole region. Soon Kim only half listened and almost dozed off, semi-focused on the last pages of her thesis. She heard the standard static as the array aligned, stopped, and then locked into position. Unusual in pattern and abnormal, there was a silent pause in sound for approximately 45 seconds. Odd, she thought, looking up from her work.

The array was supposed to be eavesdropping on Kim’s seventh selected coordinate in the Northern Pole, however, the entire listening system appeared to stall out. The monitor displayed the correct latitude and longitude, declination and trajectory, but was now holding for some reason. The array dishes had cycled off. She was puzzled. She scrolled to the bottom of the screen. Written in a small font were the words, Application Hold – Initialize Abort Peripheral Sequence. Beside the words was a timer that was now down to six… five… four… three. She watched the countdown, frowning.

When the counter reached zero, she heard the whine of the dish array movement. The system moved on to the eighth coordinate while she watched. From the eighth coordinate on to the tenth, the array performed flawlessly. The array had technically bypassed the seventh coordinate altogether. Kim’s mother had always taught her to go with her gut instinct. She was torn and then made the quick decision. “Son of a bitch—who programmed that in there—there is no way I’m letting this go—reverse it!” Kim commanded herself out loud.

Kim hit the keys “Ctrl” and “I” for additional information to display the individual lines of coordinate programming code. After each code line shown, she saw the sequence: [\abort-auto-exe.-complete\]. Kim had never seen a computer sequence like this before. Each line had turned from black to red as this “abort” command had cycled through. Kim sat there, puzzled. She did not like what she saw, sensing that something wasn’t right.

Kim picked up the telephone and dialed the on-call tech support member and explained the situation, relaying the exact words she had seen written at the bottom of the first screen and on the secondary code screen. The technician said that he had seen this occurrence happen once before when the array’s listening field had got too close to a newly launched low-orbit spy satellite that was undergoing an initial testing phase. The tech left her on hold for a few minutes to consult a manual and then came back on the line with an improvised fix. The solution spelled out in his field manual hadn’t work so the tech added in his solution from the prior blocking occurrence he had just mentioned.

The tech talked Kim through a sequence backup procedure and then through his own solution for an abort override. It worked; the 130 array dishes reversed course. The system was now holding at the start of Kim’s seventh coordinate, awaiting her key entry command to proceed. All she had to do now was hit the “Enter” key to continue. Kim thanked the tech for his time, apologizing for the late hour of her call.

Miffed at the time she had lost, Kim hit the “Enter” key—hard.

It materialized instantly. A voice...



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