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The Rocket Scientist

Chapter One: Curiosity 2

 Gale Crater, Mars, 2031

 

The orange glow of the Martian sunrise reflected off Curiosity 2’s antenna as it perched on the side of the towering Mt. Sharp. The SUV-sized rover, armed with its powerful array of sensors, spectrometers, and earth-penetrating drill had prowled the landscape for twenty-two Martian days, yet to achieve its mission; finding life. 

 

Dr. Julie McCray, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Director of Mars Programs, paced in front of the workstations in her Mission Control center, a frayed path ground into the carpet from her countless footsteps. She glanced at the wall-sized monitor displaying the live feed from the cameras on her stationary rover, C-2, switched into standby mode during the Martian night. Find ‘em for me, C-2. I’m running out of time.  She turned around. Eighteen highly trained scientists and engineers faced her, eager for another day of exploring. 

 

“Let’s go, everyone. I’m counting on you.” Then she pointed to Franklin, her Mission Director. “Wake up my boy. Send him to Grid 35.”  

“Transmitting instructions now, Director,” said Franklin, the mission’s twenty-eight-year-old project scientist. He wore a retro SpaceX tee shirt stamped with ‘Colonize Mars’ in tall white letters.

Seven minutes later Curiosity 2’s antenna snatched Julie’s commands out of the Martian sky. Its robotic eyes snapped open and scanned the terrain. The instrumentation lights flipped from stand-by yellow to full green and began sending data to its navigation computer. Energizing its six all-terrain wheels, C-2 crept down the steep grade toward Grid 35, a high-priority site for organics in the basin below. 

 

After another seven minutes, the rover’s new images flooded the main screen.  Julie stood fixated, watching C-2’s powerful wheels kick up puffs of regolith, the red layer of broken rock and dust covering the planet’s surface. What a beautiful sight you are, C-2, thought Julie fingering the gold cross on her necklace that once belonged to her deceased father. I wish you were here to see this Dad. You’d love it.

Julie let out a big sigh. “Call me when he gets the sample.” 

“Will do, Boss,” said Franklin. 

 

Seven hours later, C-2’s sophisticated gas sensor beeped, signaling it caught a whiff of methane gas seeping from underground. It snapped to a halt and locked its wheels. Its advanced computer calculated the precise extraction coordinates to capture any biologics lurking below.

Then the telescopic drill casing rose from inside C-2’s body, rotated, and extended the high-speed drill.  It bore into the Martian surface creating a mini-blast zone of pulverized rock and displaced soil. 

Within minutes the mechanism raised the soil sample and inserted it into the chromatograph-mass spectrometer, scrutinizing it for the DNA of organic life. When the scan finished, C-2 raised its high-frequency antenna and shot the findings back to the JPL. After Franklin’s heads up, Julie marched into Mission Control and donned her headset. 

 

“Status?”

“C-2 transmitted five minutes ago.”

Julie stood in the middle of the control room, her right foot tapping on the floor. Come on, C-2. Don’t let me down. 

“Decoding now,” Franklin said. 

Julie closed her eyes and gripped her cross, praying to hear good news. 

“It’s another duster. No biologics, Director.”

Julie’s hands balled into fists.  Dammit. Why can’t I find them? A collective groan erupted from the staff. Julie scanned her staff’s reactions and hustled to the front of the room. 

 

“Listen up. I’m disappointed too. I thought this one would be it. But we can’t lose focus. I know the methane will lead us to those living organisms. And I’m not giving up. You know why? Because I have the best explorers in the solar system right in front of me. Let’s go!”

The staff sang out their support, many giving her a thumbs up, and they returned to their duties. Julie went up the steps and approached Franklin, “Move him to Grid 36.” Franklin nodded then leaned over and whispered so the rest couldn’t hear.

“Julie, three weeks and not even a trace of organics,” he whispered. “In five days, the prime sites will be exhausted. We need a different approach.” 

I’m thinking the same damn thing. “Yeah, something’s not right. But for now, get C-2 over to 36 for me, okay? I’m headed home. See you tomorrow.”

“On it, Director.”

 

Julie stepped into the main lobby and stopped to strap on her government-issued breathing mask, an unconscious habit like putting on a seat belt before driving. She trudged into the parking lot, enveloped by the thick brown polluted air engulfing Pasadena like most other urban areas. By the time she reached her Subaru EV wagon, the sun’s searing heat caused sweat to stream down her back soaking her blue cotton shirt.

Julie unplugged the car from the charging station and flung open the door. The day’s hot air poured out as she eased in and cranked up the AC. She closed her eyes. The micro-filtered cold air blasted against her face, whipping her blonde hair against her shoulders. She tossed off her mask and when she switched on the motor, the radio news station came blaring through. 

 

President Martha Jennings and the leaders of the ‘Top Nine’ polluting countries proclaimed their Climate Initiative is off to a great start despite Earth’s temperature still rising unabated. The President said at the close of the conference that …

 Julie’s phone rang, interrupting the announcer, so she snapped off the radio. The caller ID announced it was Michael Boxman, NASA’s Administrator. She strangled the steering wheel, her knuckles turning white. Like I need crap from him right now.

 

“What’s today’s report, McCray? Find’em yet?” 

“Not yet but Curiosity’s performing great, and I know we’ll…” 

“You promised me results. Jennings wants your Mars money for her Climate Initiative. Convinced Jack you were on the verge, and we stalled her. You’ve got four weeks.” Then he hung up.

Julie stared straight ahead, then pounded the steering wheel with both fists. “Dammit!” She closed her eyes and leaned back on the headrest clutching her gold cross.  Franklin’s right.  What am I missing? After a moment, she slammed the gearshift in drive and zipped out of the parking lot.

 

***

National Security Administration (NSA) Headquarters 

Ft. Meade, MD.

 

It took Deputy Director CJ Jackson an hour to drive from his CIA headquarters to meet with Senior Analyst, Layla Barton––– long way to go for a ten-minute meeting he thought. But Barton was the best and she called it an emergency. CJ insisted they talk face-to-face so no unfriendly electronic ears could listen in. 

 

CJ hustled to the small, windowless conference room. Only a large monitor and emergency evacuation instructions hung on its bare white walls. Layla sat waiting, beating the pen between her fingers on the table like a hard rock drummer. He saw her flaming red hair in disarray and a wired look in her eyes. Probably on her third Red Bull by now. He sat down across from her.

 

“What’s the urgency, Ms. Barton?” 

“Been a spike in cyber-attacks. They targeted NASA’s personnel files again. Over a thousand’s been compromised. It’s a Level Two. You needed to know.”

CJ's eyes grew wide. His hands started to quiver, so he whisked them under the table before Layla caught on. “You confirmed the source?” 

“Yep. Chinese, the Ministry of State Security, like before. They focused on travel history and personal finance, probing for potential informants.” 

“What’s your plan?”

 “We’ve flooded the NASA files with thousands of fake employees to throw them off. Loaded’em last night. We’re investigating the compromised records. We’ll check their bank accounts, credit cards, the usual. I’ll let you know if someone pops up.”

 

“Good. Keep on the phone intercepts from McCray at JPL.”

“Yep, the Mars lady. The Level Two amps it up.”

“The Chinese know she’s looking for life up there. The intrusion’s not a coincidence. McCray’s a brainiac. She’ll find it. When she does, I want control right away.  You set?”

Layla flashed her green eyes at him through her white-horned rim glasses. “I’m on it. Satellite’s in position, ready to go on your command, Director.”

 

CJ nodded and Layla bustled out of the room. The Chinese Ministry of State Security meant its Minister, Liu Wang, was behind it. He reached in his pocket and began massaging his worry stone. Wang’s ruthless. The attack on the files is too obvious. I wonder what she’s really after. 

 

***

Julie’s Condo

 

Julie unlocked her door and Gizmo, her orange and white Persian cat, trotted over to greet her. She picked him up and hugged him. “Hi, buddy. Let’s go into the kitchen. I need an emergency wine.” She poured herself a glass of chardonnay and took a big gulp. Then took her frozen ready-made meal from the freezer and popped it into the microwave to defrost. 

 

She tossed off her sweaty clothes into a heap on the bedroom floor and removed her diamond stud earrings. When she opened her jewelry case her abandoned wedding ring stared up at her.  She flicked it with her finger slamming it into the back of the drawer. Today sucked enough. I don’t need to be reminded about you. 

After showering, Julie retreated to the kitchen. Gizmo stretched out on the granite counter next to her as she dug into her mindless meal. She gazed at the blank walls of her living room, a reminder her ex traded for the artwork. And I got the cat.  She took another sip of chardonnay and face-timed her brother, a sounding board ever since their dad passed away.

 

“Hey, Jules. Wow. No offense but you look like shit.”

“I’m stressed. Boxman just gave me four weeks. Shit, I should’ve found ‘em by now, Gary. I’m missing something. Just can’t put my finger on it.” Julie smoothed her damp hair and took another swallow.

“It’s hard to step back when you’re in it up to your neck. I don’t know, look in a different place or maybe you need a distraction? I’m thinking getting laid would do it. Any prospects? 

 

“Ha. I’m slammed with this mission.”

“Sounds like an excuse.”

“Come on Gary, I don’t want to go through what happened with Bill ever again.” 

“Jules, Bill was a total asshole. Didn’t deserve you. Besides, I’m not saying get into a relationship, just someone to have some fun…. Uh, oh. They heard your voice.”

Gary’s two boys, 8 and 10, raced into the room and hijacked the call demanding to talk space stuff, thinking Julie was the coolest aunt ever. She laughed and told them a story of how Mars was formed out of floating pieces of rock four and a half billion years ago. 

 

When the call ended, she retreated to the living room couch. Giz hopped up next to her. “Let’s watch The Martian. That always cheers me up.” She pulled up the movie and pressed the play button, sipping her chardonnay. 

“Gary said to look in a different place. I wish I knew where. At least C-2’s performing. He’s so dependable just like you Giz.”  

After a while, Julie laughed, “Look, here’s the part where Matt Damon blows himself up. He forgot about the oxygen he was exhaling and...Hold it.” She pressed pause, hopped off the couch, and paced around the room. Oxygen’s the key… Think… Julie did another lap then stopped. It’s the subsurface ice particles. Mixes when…Shit, that’s it!

She turned to face the couch. “That’s what’s missing, Giz. It’s the freaking chlorates.”

 

Julie grabbed her phone and called Dr. Marge Jamison, her trusted number two, supervising the night shift at JPL.

“Marge, I know how to detect them.”

“Spill it.”

“It’s the chlorates. Find their concentrations and pair them up with the methane. Where there’s both is where we’ll get ‘em.”

“But C-2 doesn’t have the instrumentation.”

“I know. That’s why we missed it. Program the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and scan the Gale Crater.”

“On it,” said Marge. “Two of us could bang this out a lot faster.” 

“I’m on my way. Call in Franklin too.” 

 

***

Six Hours later

 

Following Julie’s new search protocol, C-2 deposited a new soil sample, analyzed it, and raised its antenna. Julie stopped pacing and joined Marge at Franklin’s Mission Director’s workstation.

“We’ll know in four minutes,” said Julie.

“Hey, fill me in,” said Franklin. “What’s the deal with the chlorates? I’m not a chem head.”

 

“Concentrations of salts, particularly chlorates, mix with other minerals creating a chemical reaction generating heat,” said Marge. “This liquifies the subsurface ice particles. The resulting brine is like ocean water and doesn’t freeze underground.”

“And water’s needed for life,” said Franklin. “Why didn’t we think of this before?”

“Limited instrumentation space. Focused only on the methane,” said Julie. “My fault.”

“How’d you come up with the chlorates?” asked Marge.

“Matt Damon.”

“What?”

“Guys, data’s coming in,” said Franklin, pounding the keys on his computer. 

 

“We found them! We’ve got organics!” 

“Oh my god. It worked,” shrieked Julie. “Put it on screen. I gotta see the data.”

Julie rushed to the front of the control room. Three distinct bacterial DNA patterns exploded onto the giant monitor.  Julie gasped; her hand rose covering her mouth. There was the proof. She caressed the cross between her fingers and looked skyward. I couldn’t have done this without you, Dad.

 

Behind her, the night staff leaped to their feet yelling and hugging each other. Marge and Franklin rushed to Julie forming a tight circle of three. Tears of pure joy tumbled down Marge and Julie’s cheeks. Then they joined in with the rest of the staff. When everyone settled down, Julie addressed the group. 

“We did it! We did it! We’re the first ones to find life outside Earth. Thank you all so much. Wow, what a great day for science. Okay. This is important, like really serious. We are now on total communication lockdown until NASA tells us how they want to handle the announcement. Everyone got that? I need to talk with Franklin and Marge so take a quick break.”

 

In Julie’s office, she pulled out a bottle of Schramsberg and poured them each glass, the bubbly foam spilling over the sides. “Six long years! Here’s to us,” toasted Julie. “We’ve been through a lot, but we persevered. Thank you both.” The three scientists reminisced about mission challenges and how they overcame them until the bottle was empty. “Okay, let’s get back to it,” said Julie. “Franklin run the DNA past our astrobiologist. See what she thinks. But first, secure the data, only Marge and I are to have access.” 

After Franklin left Julie turned to Marge. “Time to tell Boxman. After his phone call yesterday, I’m waking his ass out of bed.” Julie put it on speaker. 

 

“Damn, McCray, what’s so important? It’s four fucking AM.” 

“We found life on Mars, Dr. Boxman.”

“What? Did you say…Wait. You have absolute proof? 

“We ran the spectrometer analysis twice. It’s definitive.”

“Let me think. First, put a gag on that team of yours. No emails, texts, nothing. Next, get me more samples. I’m not sticking my neck out until we have robust findings no one can dispute. Then we’ll tell the world. The publicity will force the politicians to give us the funds. Call when you have them.”  He hung up. 

 

“That’s our boss,” said Marge. “Didn’t even think of congratulating us, did he?” 

“I know. He can be such an ass, but he’s right about the samples. I think…”

Julie’s office door flew open, and an intern barged in. 

“Dr. McCray,” she panted. “Franklin said to come quick. We have big trouble.”

They rushed into Mission Control. Red emergency lights lit up the room. All the monitors read, Loss of Signal. Franklin sat hunched over in his chair, staring at his mission computer. Julie put a hand on his shoulder. 

Franklin looked up, his lips quivering, “C-2 just stopped working. I did an emergency reboot.” He shook his head. “Didn’t work. Curiosity’s dead.”

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