An early riser by habit, Arthur Hammond was still surprised to have a call from the control center this soon. If the phone rang at all during the night, it was never welcome news. Otherwise, the flight directors tried to leave the Chairman alone after hours. Not that Hammond ever really shut himself off: a tablet tucked away in his corner study was continuously linked to their network with a full timeline of current flights scrolling across its screen.
“Hammond,” he answered, even more gruffly than he felt.
“Good – you’re up,” he heard Audrey say before a brief pause. “Arthur, I’m calling to report an overdue liner. Armstrong entered farside blackout at 1142 Zulu, expected re-acquisition at 1213Z did not occur. We have no comm or telemetry.”
A sickness filled his gut. Hammond settled gingerly back onto the bed with a pained sigh. It took some time to collect himself before replying. “Understand, Aud. No emergency signals, either?” he asked hopefully. “No transponder squawks?”
“None, and we’ve already pinged the relay sats,” she added. “They’re working. The systems controllers have called in help and they’re poring over the telemetry records up through Loss of Signal. We’re looking for any anomalies that could explain this, but so far no weirdness.”
“But right now, you’ve got a hole in space where our ship should be.”
He could sense her brief hesitation. “That’s correct. I’m declaring this a missing vessel.”
Hammond sighed again. Damn. “Then I concur. Notify the Feds and I’ll activate the rest of the emergency response protocols for you.”
“Thanks Arthur.” It would save her a tremendous amount of distracting work. “I’m also going to make some calls to our buddies back in Houston – at least the ones who’ll still talk to us,” she offered. “Maybe they can do a LIDAR sweep and get a return signal.”
“Good thinking,” he said. A laser-ranging scan worked much like radar, but was more precise and far more useful in space. “We’re not going to just sit on our thumbs and let this play out.”
“Way ahead of you. I’m having the schedulers call in Penny and Charlie, and the flight planners are working out return trajectories for the other liner.”
“What’s your plan, Audrey?” he asked, suspecting he already knew the answer.
“Let you know as soon as I come up with one, boss.”
* * *
Joe Stratton groaned as he stretched for the phone on their nightstand, especially once he noticed the time. Four-something in the blasted morning – which meant he didn’t need to bother checking the caller ID. He lifted the handset from its receiver and tossed it onto his wife’s stomach, waking her with a jolt. “We really need to move that thing to your side of the bed.”
Penny Stratton sat up with a start, acting more awake than she really was, and lightly punched her husband on the arm. “Wuss,” she chided him, and switched to a coolly professional tone as she thumbed the phone. “Go ahead,” she answered crisply, sounding more awake than she actually felt. It wouldn’t do for the company’s Chief Pilot to sound groggy, no matter what time the calls came. It was frequently when normal people were sleeping.
Joe watched through one sleepy eye as her demeanor changed within seconds. Rubbing one eye as she listened, whatever it was brought her unpleasantly awake. “Missing?” she nearly barked into the phone, then caught herself. Penny closed her eyes and leaned back against the pillow, massaging her temples with her free hand. “How long since loss of signal?” she asked. Whatever the answer, she clearly didn’t like it. “Have you called Grant yet? Okay…I’m on my way,” she said, and set the phone on the bed.
He watched her lay still for a minute, lost in thought – maybe praying? Her robotic twirling and tugging at a strand of hair signaled that his wife was deeply troubled.
Penny finally sat back up and walked into their bathroom without a word. He saw the light flicker on and heard rushing water from the shower, which lasted barely a minute. She stepped out shortly after dressed in a uniform jumpsuit with her emergency “go bag” slung over one shoulder: a 55-liter backpack filled with the essentials she’d need for a short-notice trip to unpredictable locations. She gave Joe an apologetic look which told him more than words could: this was really bad, and he shouldn’t expect to see her for a few days.
He lifted a curtain to peek outside. An early spring snowfall had begun while they were asleep. “I’ll put some coffee on,” he said, and headed for the kitchen.
* * *
“So that’s the last signal?” Charlie Grant asked as he leaned over Audrey’s shoulder. Typically one of the first to arrive each day, the director of operations had already been on his way in she’d called him. Her control team had just moved into the Emergency Operations Center; Audrey was waiting to ensure they’d been able to transfer all of the necessary control data over the network before logging them out. In the EOC, they’d be effectively isolated until this crisis had played itself out.
She tapped the time stamp, 1142 Universal. “That’s it,” Audrey said. “The guys think they can tweak some residual data out of the static. We’ll keep scrubbing it after they’re switched on in there, but there’s just not much signal to process. Maybe ten seconds worth. ”
Grant understood. “Don’t I know it,” he finally grumbled. Once the ship’s antennas were physically masked by the Moon’s far side, there was no way to communicate with it. A deal they had reached with NASA to lease bandwidth from a relay satellite already in lunar orbit had been inexplicably canceled just a few months earlier, with no reason was given other than an abrupt “needs of the government” excuse. He and Audrey had both realized they should have known better – the cruel irony was that after this episode, that same government was likely to require uninterrupted contact for any future trips.
“Art’s going to have to get our own comsat up sooner,” Audrey observed. “No matter how this turns out.”
“Can’t rush that sort of thing,” Hammond said as he walked up, startling them both. Penny trailed close behind him, brushing snow from her hair. “It takes what it takes. Same reason you can’t get nine women pregnant and have a baby in a month.”
“Sorry, Arthur…” Audrey began.
“Don’t worry yourself,” he said, though visibly frustrated. “Nobody’s more pissed off about that than me. We have a missing ship which would be a whole hell of a lot easier to find if NASA could’ve spared some bandwidth.”
“Might never have lost it in the first place,” Grant suggested darkly. “We don’t even have enough data to put together a half-assed TLE.” A Two-Line Element held all of the mathematical variables they needed to model the ship’s orbit and predict where it would appear at any time in the future. Without it, they were essentially stabbing in the dark.
“I’ve got a couple swags at their next position out of blackout,” Audrey offered, leaning away from her console and reaching for a notebook. “That’s making some assumptions about what happened, of course.”
“And those would be…?” Hammond prodded.
Audrey returned to her keyboard, tapped in a command, and the main screen changed to display the moon overlaid by different colored ellipses. “To narrow the search pattern, I considered three scenarios,” she explained. “All assume a total comm failure. First, they couldn’t execute the second correction burn and ended up in a long ellipse. Second, they completed the burns but somehow lost power and are exactly where they should be. We just can’t see them.”
“And the third?” Penny was almost afraid to ask.
Audrey had hoped she’d not have to elaborate on that one. “Worst case,” she said, taking a breath, “they burned too long and crashed into the surface on the far side.”
“Pick you poison, as they say,” Hammond replied dourly. “So you’re really only working with two viable scenarios.”
“That’s just the boundaries,” she tried to clarify. “We’re including every likely variation in between. I figured a half-hour difference between orbital periods, starting with each of the two ellipses. We’ll keep working our way in on each expected pass.”
Penny rubbed her eyes and looked at the open workstation behind them when something caught her attention. “When’s the next AOS window?” she asked, staring intently at the monitor.
Audrey checked her watch. “Eight seconds ago, actually,” she said, slightly embarrassed. “While we were talking about it.”
Penny stepped aside and motioned them toward the screen. “Then I think we’ve got something.”
A wildly oscillating pattern had burst onto the comm window. The others scrambled over to where she stood, while Audrey whipped back around to her own station and hurriedly clipped a headset back onto her glasses.
Hammond stayed by her side. “Can you talk to them?” he asked anxiously.
“Not yet,” Audrey said. “It’s on the HF, single-sideband. It’s like they’ve got a stuck mic or something.”
“So it’s not on the emergency freq,” he wondered. “And you haven’t heard this before?”
“Negative. This is new.” As she said it, the static abruptly ended. Crestfallen, Hammond turned away quietly and cursed under his breath.
And then it started again. He rushed back to Audrey’s console as more static crackled over the speakers. Just as suddenly, it cut off. “Don’t lose it!” he barked as Audrey tried to fine-tune the receiver.
The signal returned, was once again briefly interrupted, then resumed. Audrey lifted her hands to demonstrate it had nothing to do with her actions.
“So was this just a comm failure?” Hammond asked hopefully.
Grant and Audrey didn’t appear convinced. “I don’t think so,” he finally answered for them both. “Not given where the signal’s coming from – the orbit’s out of phase. There’s definitely something else going on here.” We never get that lucky, he didn’t want to add.
Penny had been sitting with a spare headset snugged down tightly over her ears. “You’re right about that,” she finally said, pushing back an earphone. “There’s a pattern here – listen.” She then gestured to Audrey, who turned up the speaker volume. “Hear that? There’s a pattern,” she repeated, and checked the intermittent bursts against her watch.
She looked up to a room full of blank stares. “Come on. Nobody here remembers Morse code?”
They’d caught the last transmission in mid-burst, but suddenly understood: three distinct long static bursts, followed by brief silence and three more short bursts. This was followed by a longer silence, seconds that felt like an eternity. And then the pattern repeated itself: three short, three long, three short.
Grant tried to suppress his excitement, not wanting to grasp for what could be false hope. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Damned if I can think of anything else,” Penny said. They all leaned in closer, not quite believing their ears as the pattern repeated once more: