Lawrence would notice the smell of cigarette smoke, but she didn’t care. It was as if her car had a mind of it’s own. Without thinking about it, Amber had arrived at the POSIS headquarters. She slammed the door on her car, and walked toward the front entrance. She could see through the glass that the lights were off in the lobby. Astronomers who worked normal hours, what a strange idea. It was all thanks to her stereoscopic space telescope system.
She paused at the front door to extinguish the cigarette that hung loose from her lips. She had quit when Riker was born, for the most part. Although when the occasional bought of stress struck, she always knew how to calm herself. She took one last drag, leaned down, and pressed the ash into the dirt. Once she dropped the extinguished butt into the trash can, her attention turned.
She angrily punched the keypad next to the glass door. She was still fuming from the fight with her husband Lawrence. She felt like she was caught between two impossible decisions. She loved her husband, but she didn’t want their son to be raised believing in God. She couldn’t imagine anything more abhorrent. The keypad beeped, notifying her that her passcode was accepted.
Although she usually worked from her home, there was an office for her at every location. Some she had only been in a handful of times. This one, however, was the closest to her house and therefore she had spent a lot of time at this ground station. She hit the lights and dropped her keys on her desk. She twisted the blinds so that she could see the colored blinking lights of the server racks through the glass wall of her office.
She fired up the computer at her desk. Astronomy was her escape, which is exactly what she needed at the moment. She clicked through the day’s log to see what new images had come in. Scrolling through a few dozen new cues she finally got down to the completed images.
She clicked on one that read Jupiter-Moon-Transit. She hadn’t seen it on the previous day’s cue sheet, but that was not uncommon. Being a manager meant that she didn’t always get time to go through the shots. Her tension eased as the image of the gas giant filled her entire computer monitor. As she reached for a pair of 3D glasses and put them on, she felt herself being transported.
“Wow,” she said aloud. There was not another soul in the building, but that would not stop her from enjoying her work out loud. She zoomed the image of Jupiter in. It had resolved nicely. The hundreds of megapixel image was beautiful. She scanned over the gaseous surface of the planet for the better part of an hour. It was like taking a mental vacation. She was completely immersed.
Suddenly a beep broke her out of her silent revery. An error message flashed onto the 3D space between her and the image. She jumped from the interruption, and then laughed at herself for being startled. She gathered her wits and read the error message. In big bright letters it read, “Slewing aborted, alignment error -458739”
“That’s weird,” she said to the dark empty office. Usually Tom, her station manager, would handle day to day problems like this. Although, having designed the system from the ground up, she was more than capable of troubleshooting a simple alignment issue. She clicked the ‘ok’ button and opened the telescope feed. She had not seen this error code before, but she figured it would be no problem reseting it.
Her hands went to work. Clicking, typing, and jotting down notes on a pad next to the keyboard. She waded through a parade of windows and error messages. As far as she could tell the telescopes were running properly, the feed was strong, and the coordinates were accurate. The telescopes had been repointing to a new object but aborted the alignment in mid maneuver. She clicked the ‘live feed’ button, thinking that maybe there was something wrong with the digital imaging equipment on one of the space telescopes itself. A picture of deep space blinked onto her screen. It took her a minute to get her bearings. She was extremely familiar with the celestial bodies so it should have been no problem.
However, there was a problem. With a couple of clicks the image zoomed backward. She was looking at what was now sure to be Polaris. In the corner of the image stood Kochba. Between these two stars should have been only small low magnitude dots of light. However, standing at attention was a body of light she had never seen before. It was twice the brightness of the other two.
“Well hello,” she said as she tilted her head. “What are you doing there?” She refreshed the image to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. Sure enough, both imaging satellites were seeing it. It was no mistake.
The phone on her desk rang. Startled, she jumped again. She grabbed at it and lifted it to her ear. Still engaged with the image on her screen she said, “hello.”
“Hey, it’s Tom. I saw you were logged in.”
“Any idea what’s wrong with our eyes in the sky?” Tom asked, obviously having just woken up. His voice was groggy. Amber clicked to enlarge the image. The foreign object felt as if it came closer. She spoke almost absently as she responded to Tom’s question.
“They got confused.”
“Confused?” He asked.
“They were slewing to the next cue. They were taking alignment readings like they always do, but they caught sight of something that’s not on the star charts. I think it confused them.”
Tom let a long pause come between them as he thought about what she had said. He asked, “Not on the star charts. Could it be debris, or lens aberration?”
She didn’t respond, but instead set the receiver down on her desk. Wide eyed, she leaned into the screen as if it would help her understand. Tom’s voice was still coming through the phone on the desk, but she didn’t notice. She clicked over to a data menu trying to verify what the image was telling her.
Her mouth fell open as she scanned over the mountain of numbers. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. A gasp escaped her mouth as her eyes poured over the columns of numeric readings. It took her a second to realize that the scream she heard was her own. She reached for the telephone that was still off the hook. She began to dial numbers as she put the receiver to her ear.
“I’m still here. You didn’t hang up. What’s going on?” Tom said.
“Wake everybody up, we need to verify this-” she trailed off not knowing what to call it. She picked up her train of thought at a different point. “I need to put the word out to the other observatories.”
“Amber!” Tom said. She had never heard him raise his voice so it got her attention. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“Sorry.” She took a deep breath. “It’s a rogue star. It just passed into our solar system and it’s moving at us fast.”
“Wow, that’s not good.” Tom said. “I’ll scramble the team. We’ll be in place in a half hour.”