Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Probe - Story and Illustration by T.R.Hart

 Their jubilation had turned to anguish. The mission to Haumea had been completed without any complications. The probe had landed exactly where they had wanted it, and had compiled information about the surface and its composition for more than a month. Visuals were streaming back to the mission control center. Everything was perfect. Then, suddenly, it happened! The probe stopped transmitting to the Earth.                                         
    Her face was illuminated by the pale blue light emanating from the screen.  All the others had gone home after spending days of frustration trying to reconfigure the program on the probe. One of the ships was in the vicinity and would attempt to recover the Lander and the valuable information contained in its files. This was still considered a risky operation in such a distant part of our Solar System. Space exploration was still in its infancy, but the spacecraft were much larger and better suited for travel than those before. Several base camps were established; the largest were on Mars and Saturn's moons, but none offered the hospitable environment found on Earth. Her interest in this operation would be different. She knew the mission's commander.
    She had always been the person least likely to be noticed in a room full of people. A small, thin woman with dark hair pulled tightly back into a ponytail, her glasses seemed too large for her head. The small features and shy demeanor belied her kind and generous nature.  Her life was given for Science and although she never regretted her decision, the years were often lonely and uneventful.  The History which she learned was not the kind that most people were accustomed to. Most had been taught from one war to another, but as a young girl she had been consumed by reading of explorations from the earliest known chronicles of Egypt's voyage to Punt and to the latest explorations in Outer Space. Her mother had eagerly watched on a small black and white television at her neighbor's house while Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the Moon taking the "giant leap" for mankind. On that summer's night, while still in communist occupied Poland, her mother yearned to become an astronaut.
     Her mother never became an astronaut. Instead, she had become an engineer and met her husband, Magdalena's father, also an engineer, while at the University. They immigrated to the United States before she was born. "Maggie", as her friends called her, was the first American in the family. She remembered little about her father. He was kind, soft spoken, and although she remembered him as being so tall, he was average in height. She loved him and was so confused when he did not return home one night. She remembered her mother screaming and pulling her hair. "Why?"..."Why! He should die so young?" The plane crash occurred on his return from a building project in some Third World nation. Her mother was heartbroken. She never remarried.
Part 1: Haumea
     Haumea is a dwarf planet like Pluto, but sixty percent as large. Like its neighbor Haumea is a cold and desolate with temperatures below -50 degrees Kelvin, or, for the layperson, -433 degrees Fahrenheit.  It lies in a distant region of the Solar System known as the Kuiper Belt at our solar system's frontier. It was now in its perihelion, or closest in orbit to our star, the Sun. The distance measured from our planet to the sun is measured in A.U.s, or Astronomical Units.  Haumea's distance is 35 times greater than our distance from the Sun. Its peculiar elliptical shape may be responsible for its rapid rotation. A Haumean day is only 3.9 hours. A cold hellish place to be, and Commander Collins and his crew would be there within days.
    Maggie and the Commander in the Astronaut were in the same training program in their youth. She was the brainiest of them with an encyclopedic knowledge of terrestrial planetary geology. He was the clean cut kid with the engineering degree, and "Top Gun" piloting skills that he acquired in the military. . Maggie and Patrick Collins were at opposite ends of the program's hierarchy.  She was the shy one. He was the born leader.
   Collins was shorter than the rest of the candidates, but he had earned the respect from the other candidates for his coolness under pressure and his ability to make others feel good about them. Maggie loved his company. She had thought that the other female candidates would be like sisters in this male-dominated field, but she was wrong. The women were competitive and saw her mental acuity as a threat to their success. The men weren't threatening and liked Maggie for gentleness, dedication and camaraderie.  The physical training was hard for such a fragile woman like Maggie. She had passed the physical requirements through sheer will. Brian was always there to cheer her on, and so did the other men.
    Her mother was so proud that she, her daughter would become an astronaut. She could only dream about it. She lived for Maggie's happiness. The physical hardships her daughter had overcome seemed to insure her placement in the program, but no one could have predicted the end of her career from claustrophobia. That smothering feeling she experienced in the tight confines of the simulator triggered the panic attack rendering her incapable of performing even the slightest movement. Maggie froze. Her heart raced. She felt the closeness of the walls of the simulator closing in on her.  She forced herself to move clawing her way through the hatch. She wrenched off her helmet as if there was no air in the suit. Pat was the first to help her as she trashed about hysterically. There was no doubt in her mind. She had washed out.
   5:28 A.M. Earth time Mission Control: The technicians were groggy from the exhaustive schedule that they had been keeping while speculating on the cause of the abrupt cease of transmissions from Haumea.  A violent rocking of the probe gathered from the last transmitted visuals raised speculation of a tectonic event. Perhaps a tremor or maybe something like an avalanche had occurred, but no seismic activity had been recorded in the last minutes of the probe’s data recordings. Others had suggested the remote possibility that a meteorite could had impacted the probe. The odds of this occurring were infinitesimally small, and besides, if it had been hit, it wouldn't cause the violent shaking back and forth that was clearly seen in the photographic record. Risky as it may have been, it was decided that the manned expeditionary ship Heracles would send a shuttle to inspect the cause of the Lander’s demise. Strangely enough, on this cold forbidden world, data recorded by the instruments found the presence of warm water.
    The colonization of space had been the goal of all the exploration programs created in the early 21st century. It was hoped that Mars, our nearest terrestrial neighbor, could be restored to an earthlike environment as it had been when our Sun was larger and Earth was more like Venus. As the Sun cooled so did the Earth. Mars, which had been warm like the Earth became cold and inhospitable to life. Could it be made hospitable to human life?
   The Moon had been an outpost serving as a manufacturing plant for spaceship production. Hopes were high that the Red Planet could be terraformed through a combination of biological manipulations and thermonuclear implosions at the planet’s Polar Regions which would in turn release the carbon dioxide into the thin Martian atmosphere. It would then be captured by cultured vegetation to create an oxygen rich atmosphere through a process of transpiration. The hopes of all the greatest minds on Earth were frustrated in their attempts to achieve this mammoth undertaking. They had not realized that the smaller mass of Mars was incapable of retaining an atmosphere as its gravitational pull was insufficient. The largest colony still existed on Mars, but it had still been inhospitable and home to the hardiest or most desperate humans emigrating from an ever growing population from Earth. The decision was made to seek earthlike planets outside our own solar system. The Argo project had been establish to seek these other worlds and develop outposts with mining operations to provide the water and fuel along the route.
   The exploratory spacecraft were extremely large ships named for the heroes of Jason’s Argo. They were the considered the battleships of space exploration. Their shuttles served as the reconnaissance craft. The shuttle was designated Hylas, named for the companion and servant of the hero Heracles, also known as Hercules.  Aboard the shuttle was Commander Pat Collins and pilot Matt Webb. They had just disengaged from the belly of the mother ship and headed towards the surface of that strange bean shaped dwarf planet, Haumea.  Every action was monitored by a vigilant orbiting crew. The greatest fear that their communication would be interrupted or even worst, lost during the descent was palpable on Heracles and at Mission Control. Hylas began the descent.
   It was so quiet aboard Hylas that Collins could hear his heart beat. The only other sound heard by both men was their breathing. As they lost contact momentary with the mother ship, Collins and Webb nervously waited for any signal. “We can hear you breathing loud and clear guys…your sensors are detecting some atmospheric conditions…can you give us some visuals?” The camera focused on the Haumean landscape. It was somewhat fuzzy at first but minor adjustments on the onboard computer system sharpened the pictures to reveal rocky structures interlaced with what appeared to be icy flows between them. Immediately the images were transmitted through the great distances of space and to the Earth. At Mission Control there was excitement and shouts from the engineers who made this possible. Maggie, always the quiet one, stared wide-eyed at her screen, thinking to herself, “good job Pat!”
   Thin wispy carbon dioxide clouds seem to race by the windows of the shuttle as if they, and not the shuttle, were in motion. In some spots the clouds became thicker and obscured the camera’s eye. Webb, the pilot, carefully released jets of gas from the retro rockets slowing the descent and steadying Hylas as the surface came into view. He would search for the perfect area in proximity to the probe, remembering the story he heard about the piloting of the first Moon landing. With little fuel left in the lunar module, Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto a foreign celestial body, searched for a landing site. He realized that the assigned area was filled with rocky debris. He was running low on fuel and would have to abort the landing if he did not find a suitable place to land. With just fifteen seconds left of fuel, Armstrong landed on the Moon and averted what could have been the most tragic event in the history of early space travel. As the Hylas' commander, Webb would be the first man on Haumea.
   The probe was now in sight. Webb maneuvered the shuttle within 100 meters of the Lander. This was his moment. He radioed to Heracles declaring his intention to land. Collins was tense. His hands gripped the arms of his seat while he prayed that his companion was as good a pilot as he claimed to be. The commander noticed a small bead of sweat rolling down the side of his forehead as Webb methodically and smoothly positioned the craft nose up. They were now vertical. The view had changed from the ground to the heavens. The shuttle moved slowly in reverse, the landing gear engaged, and descent was quiet, interrupted only intermittently by the bursts of gas from the retros. The camera captured the approach to the planet’s surface. There was a slight rattle and then, a soft, dull thud. They had landed. Both men turned towards each other. Webb masked his sense of relief with a smirk and said: “Welcome to Haumea Commander Collins.”
Part II: On Haumea
    Collins unbuckled himself from his seat. He noticed the ease in moving about which would be much more arduous after landing on the Earth. The gravity on that much larger body would be sixteen times greater than on this dwarf planet. He knew that his movements would have to be slower and more deliberate lest he propel himself against the sides of the spacecraft or perilously towards some sharp immobile object on the planet.
   Webb was given the honor of being the first human to step upon Haumea. Collins soon followed, and the two men shook their clumsy gloved hands in mute celebration. It would be some time before the news had reached the Earth where landings had become commonplace and the celebrations would be taking place at few locations other than Mission Control. "That's one small step..." came the voice from Heracles. It was Chris Hanon imitating Neil Armstrong's speech on the Lunar landing with a southern drawl. "Okay...knock it off", was Webb's response. "Give us a lookie up here..." said Hanon, "...all I can see is Webb's big ol' head." Both men laughed as they both turned their helmets in the direction of the disabled Lander. With each sway of their helmets, the cameras and sensors inside revealed a panoramic view of a desolate landscape covered by powdery white ice crystals, incredibly low temperature readings, and elements of a thin atmosphere. "It's colder than Hell down here", hooted Webb. "More than minus fifty Kelvin*, that is, minus 434 degrees Fahrenheit for the rest of you." "Well y'all won't be getting sunburn...too far from the Sun", said Hanon. "We're thirty five AUs (Astronomical Unit - Distance from the Sun to the Earth) away..." said   Collins, "...and were at Perihelion!" (Perihelion: Orbit is Closest to the Sun)
   The crunch of each step reminded Collins of walking through the frost on the early December grass at home. He had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania and was accustomed to working in darkness aided only by the light of his lantern. The light given off by his helmet gave him a 180 degree daylight   view of his surroundings. Of course, each day lasted only 3.9 hours on Haumea. The only natural light that he would get on that small planet was like dusk and just as fleeting. Within 15 minutes the two had reached the disabled probe and were shocked at what they discovered.  The Haumea probe had not malfunctioned, rattled by a seismic event, nor had it been struck by a meteorite as they found no evidence of impact glass. It was virtually torn apart!
   Debris scattered in all directions indicated a violent attack on the probe. Collins had noticed something very strange. The debris seemed to follow a straight line in one direction toward a crater which lay beneath the level on which the astronauts were standing. He also noticed large indentations in the frosty terrain which appeared as some sort of tracks made by a very large organism.  As they crept toward the gaping hole on the ground below they discovered that is was not a crater, but rather a tunnel. "Webb!" he shouted. "Come here... I'm getting readings of higher temperatures around the edges of this hole!" Webb edged closer. His helmet lights revealed a glistening, gelatinous material clinging to the tunnel's walls. A fearful look was frozen on the faces of the astronauts. Webb's ever present smiled disappeared as he whispered: "Hey Pat, could there really be life on this place?" "Affirmative" he replied.
   This was transmitted to Heracles and then relayed to Mission Control: "Heracles, this is Hylas...We have found the Lander...it has been destroyed, repeat destroyed, by what we believe to be an alien life form...We have determined that a broken organic appendage found among the debris to be an arthropodic mandible, but in a gigantic proportion measuring approximately a meter in length..." There was a moment of complete silence at the control center, followed by whispers and turning heads.  It was incredulous to believe that an organism could be found on this dead, desolate body so far away, and its size would be larger than any species of arthropod found on the Earth. Maggie's thoughts were not scientific. They were instinctual. Pat Collins, she sensed, was in danger.
   "Hylas, this is Heracles" said Hanon, "We're gonna shut this mission down pardners...get your hides back to the shuttle and lift off ASAP... plan on a rendezvous in 3 hours and 42 minutes...gotta take a trip around the world...you won't be hearing from me for about an hour and a half. ..I'll be keeping an eye out for y'all".  Webb's response was immediate. "Roger that Heracles...ready to blow this pop stand...got a piece of a monster in my hand and don't want to be around when he comes looking for it". The laughter from the men lightened the moment, but the fear was still present.
   Collins and Webb started toward their craft. Each step was an effort to avoid slipping on the frozen ground or leaping from the ground due to the low gravity.  Their bulky suits, designed to provide ease of movement and with plenty of insulation would offer no protection from a tear resulting from a fall on a jagged rock.  It would be catastrophic. The journey seemed like an eternity, even though they were only within 150 meters of their destination. When they had arrived at the midpoint on their return, a slight, but noticeable tremor was felt beneath them.  The tremor subsided for a few seconds, but then they sighted an immense dark form unburrowing itself from below the surface. It rose to a great height towering above the men. Its head was tentacled like a hydra but with a body formed more like a centipede.   "Don't move", whispered the commander, taking hold of Webb's arm. To their great relief the two were not noticed by this gargantuan insect. Soon the relief turned to terror as they realized that the creature was moving towards their only means of escape - Hylas!
Part III: The Encounter
   They felt so small and defenseless against this massive armor plated monster, which moved effortlessly within its own environment. Armaments were never even considered by the space program, unlike those early explorers on Earth who knew well to protect themselves against any unwelcome advances by indigenous peoples or any wild animal that they may encounter. They planners arrogantly dismissed the possibility of contact with extraterrestrial life within our solar systems, except some primitive plants or minute unicellular animals.
   Suddenly, the creature reared on its multiple hind legs forming an  S-shape. Its tentacled head began to caress the sides of the shuttle much like a blind person using their hands to "see" an object. Every moment seemed to be in slow motion. The anguish grew as the men wondered if this nightmare would culminate in the destruction of their only means of escape.
   Just as they had begun to despair their fate, a strange looking craft appeared from the horizon. I couldn't be Hanon in the mother ship. He was too far away.  No, this craft grew larger as it came close into view. Its appearance was more bug-like than any space craft that they could imagine.  The craft came close to the creature emitting a humming or droning sound. The excited creature, turned its tentacled head to investigate the sound, slowly moved away from the shuttle, and then, like a rattle snake, lunged at the flying object with all its might. In an instant the space craft darted away from the attack. The dumb beast went flying into the air overcoming the low gravity and was sent crashing into a field of jagged rocks. It seemed to be fatally injured, its jointed legs undulated up and down, and its antennae moving furiously. They noticed the jaws. One of the mandibles had been broken in its destruction of the Haumean probe. The creature gave a heave and lay motionless. Was it dead they thought?
   Webb and Collins were happy to have survived this attack. Would their luck hold out?  During the drama which unfolded before their eyes, they completely forgot about the alien spacecraft. A strange buzz was heard and the men spotted two insect-like humanoid forms emerging from behind an outcrop. They were small and fragile looking and moved easily in this low gravity environment. They hopped and floated in the thin atmosphere towards the great motionless mountain that had tried to attack them. They gesticulated with nodding heads and movements of their jointed arms.  The buzzing method of their communication was actually felt by the men. The spacemen approached the tentacled head in a businesslike manner. They did not seem to fear the giant. Some sort of instrument was used to extricate a small machine that gave off a low "humming" sound from the creature's head. It had been implanted by this strange race of explorers who used the creature as a "probe" to collect information about the planet just as the scientists on earth had developed robots to do the perform the same tasks.
    As Collins crept up to observe the spacemen who were returning to their craft he lost his footing and miraculously fell on soft ground. This attracted the attention of the small aliens who must have been terrified by the appearance of Collins in his monstrous looking space suit. One of them quickly raised a rod like device in a defensive posture, but the other quickly, but gently pushed the weapon down. He seemed to realize the importance of not over-reacting to an encounter. He nodded his head, buzzed some sort of message, and then the two returned to their spacecraft which soon disappeared beyond the horizon.
   Collins and Webb were relieved and resumed the trip to Hylas. Webb was the first on the planet and the first to depart. His trip up the ladder to the hatch was followed by his Commander. They closed the hatch and were soon seated and ready for departure. A sigh of relief was quickly interrupted by the sight of the monster racing towards them on the ship's monitors. Its head swayed back and forth, the tentacles probed the ground, and sensed the air like antennae. The undulations of its numerous jointed legs marched as if they were parading soldiers. Webb clicked a couple of  switches igniting  the roar of  an engine and followed by a thrust forward that propelled them back into their seats. They were breaking free of Haumea's grip but a slight shaking of the craft made them realize that the creature had grabbed a hold of the landing gear. Its grip on the spacecraft was released as the burning heat from the rocket's thrust caused the monster to recoil.
   Within minutes Hylas was in orbit. Heracles, like its mythological namesake was searching for its companion, but unlike the Heracles of Argo, this search was successful. "Hey good buddy...this chick wants its momma!", said Webb. A slow southern drawl responded, "...You two seemed to be havin' a real helluva good time...ready to come home?" Pat Collins gave a quick "You Betcha!" The rendezvous was completed and soon three jubilant men were chattering about the strange chain of events which unfolded. They had found life in the most inhospitable place, encountered a race of intelligent beings and had been spared an untimely death. Collins reflected on his good fortune, but was decidedly brief in his reporting. It would not be well received by the engineers of the Argo Program.
"Mission Control...this is Commander Patrick Collins aboard Heracles...We are leaving Haumea's orbit and returning to Pluto's outpost...we have determined that Haumea is neither hospitable nor desirable for future exploration...a full report on our recent mission will be completed for further review."
      The transmission was not received well back at Mission Control. There were so many unanswered questions. What was found on Haumea? What about the mandible of a creature that they had reported? Who had authorized Collins to curtail and abandon the mission that they had spent years in development. All of the engineers had an opinion. Many were fuming. One person didn't care about the mission anymore. Other worlds would be discovered and colonized. Maggie's fears were over for the present now that the men were safe.


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