“Sydney sat back in her chair. It was another slow day in the Extremely Large Telescope, and nothing was really happening, as usual. Sydney already knew that she wasn’t going to find anything. No matter how many signals humanity sent out from earth, they never got a response.”
Sydney sat back in her chair. It was another slow day in the Extremely Large Telescope, and nothing was really happening, as usual. Sydney already knew that she wasn’t going to find anything. No matter how many signals humanity sent out from earth, they never got a response. Nothing ever came in. This was the tragedy of working at an observatory.
In the 11 years since it was put into service in 2024, the ELT had gotten some major upgrades to its imaging capability. It could now show the surface of faraway planets; oceans, forests, and every other type of land was recognizable by the ELT. It was also upgraded so that if, say, a giant alien ship, like the ones that were sent to colonize Mars only four years ago, were to fly in front of the planet, the observatory would know. They would then contact the EU, who would have every other telescope instantly pointed at that spot to gain more information.
But Sydney knew that wasn’t going to happen. The Fermi paradox’s solutions were so scary, and meant so much, that most governments refused to consider them. Sydney knew better. The probability of humanity finding life was high, but the probability of it being within the time that Sydney was serving was low. In addition to that, the probability of it being at the ELT was also low, and even if it did end up at the ELT, the chance that Sydney herself would be the one to find it was also low.
As she sat thinking about this for the umpteenth time, she decided to look through the scope again. Sydney was a bit selfish. If humanity was going to find alien life, it was damn well going to be her that found it. She would try as hard as she could to search the cosmos from her little room in a giant telescope off the coast of Chile.
She stared into the dark abyss, and decided she would focus on a new planet today. “Leo, focus the ‘scope on Kapteyn B please.”
“Acknowledged,” replied Leo in his robotic voice. Sydney felt the facility clanking into position and heard a small motor as the telescope adjusted its height.
She looked through the glass again. There was Kapteyn B, its milky white ice surface shining out from the rest of the solar system. She sighed. Even though the planet was unable to support surface liquid water at the moment, Sydney knew that the planet had been around two and a half times longer than Earth had. With all that extra time, the planet had probably at one point been suitable for life. Maybe it was even suitable under the surface, with a liquid ocean. No one knew for sure.
Sydney stared at the planet a bit more and noticed a small, black speck gliding over the planet. Sydney’s eyes widened. “Leo, zoom in on that black thing.”
“Acknowledged,” Leo said, and the view in Sydney’s scope focused on the speck.
As Sydney got a better look, her mouth dropped open. This was it. It had to be. The object was long, and she thought she saw a little blue light on the end of it. She knew what she was watching took place 12 years ago, but she didn’t care. Sydney took a deep breath, and slammed on the alert button. She felt a rush as she heard the commlink with European Southern Observatory Headquarters come through.
“ELT, found something?”
Sydney smiled. “Point every telescope at Kapteyn B, ASAP. I believe I have.”
The sandstorm ripped through the abandoned and mangled wasteland that used to be known as Phoenix, Arizona. The heat was unbearable at a temperature of 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Jett Hanes, a lieutenant in the US Exploration and Reclamation Squad, didn’t notice. His bulky, white and blue Personal Environment suit kept him cool. The suit was completely airlocked, with air entering through a vent and passing through several filters before being cooled and stored, ready for Hanes to take his next breath. It also kept him safe from flying debris, and had two shields on each of his arms. As he trudged through the desert toward the abandoned city, dead withering trees stared down at him. He would have been dropped into the city, but the storm was too strong, and even the Dropjet, with its powerful engines, would have been swept away. So instead he was dropped on the outskirts of the city.
His mission was to reach the center of Phoenix. An earlier squad had gone out to investigate a strange signal emanating from somewhere in the ruins, but the sandstorm had left them quite literally in the dust. They were now hiding in an abandoned mall. Jett was to find the squad, put up an emergency shelter, and wait for extraction once the storm died down. Hopefully there was enough time.
Phoenix, having been evacuated thirty years earlier because of sandstorms, drought, and temperatures that humans could barely tolerate, was now a rusted brown mess. Mangled buildings and aircars littered the city, and the idea of going back was not feasible to the government. They had completely abandoned the city, building a new, cleaner, renewable city for the refugees. They planned to forget about it entirely, but this new signal was not something they could resist checking out. They knew it might be important, but they didn’t know exactly what it was. So ERS was sent in to find out.
As Hanes reached the city, his vision clouded with all the sand whipping around him. He turned on his floodlight, powered up thermal, and kept walking. As he passed an intersection, the amount of sand became stronger from a different direction.
Suddenly, a piece of a billboard came careening down the road. It smashed into Hanes, knocking him down, and shattered upon coming into contact with the armored suit. The sand pushed him another few yards. Hanes stopped himself, and activated his maneuvering jets. He slowly started pushing back, and eventually reached the other side. He kept walking. The earlier squad needed him. He extended his arm shields and trudged on.
As he reached the mall, he turned on thermal again. He could make out the squad’s thermal signatures. He prepared the porta-shelter and made the final stretch. The storm seemed to be dying down. Aside from the occasional strong gust of wind, the sand pushing Hanes’ suit was getting slightly softer. Hanes carefully but quickly stepped into the mall, shutting the door behind him. In the few moments that the door was open, about a truck full of sand managed to spill into the mall. Hanes put down his visor. The squad was about 500 meters away from him.
They saw him before he reached them. “My god, what is that?”
“Denman, you idiot, that’s a clanker. We’re saved!”
Hanes turned on his mic. “Don’t worry, the storm is dying down,” he told them, while setting up the porta-shelter. As he placed it on the ground, the sheets of metal unfolded, forming a dome about the size of a regular kitchen. “I need you to get in this shelter and wait with me for extraction.”
“Yeah, uh, about that…” Hanes guessed this was the one named Denman speaking again. “We have a slight problem.”
“Is this in any way related to the signal we picked up?”
“Yes. We figured out where it was coming from,” said a new voice. This one was female and a little aggravated. “But we can’t get to it.”
“Who are you, what is it, and where is it?”
“I’m Sara Edison. You know the Cold War? All those tensions with Russia in the late 1900s? Well, apparently, the government installed a missile silo in the parking lot. They also installed a monitor so that, in the case that there would be no one left, if a missile hit Phoenix, a sensor would detect it. The problem was, this missile was installed during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who is, as you know, infamous for denying that climate change was going to happen. He didn’t tell anyone else about the sensor, and because he didn’t believe in climate change, he didn’t stop to think about the fact that one day the temperature in Phoenix was going to get so high that the minimum requirement for the missile’s launch was going to be naturally met. This is the hottest that Phoenix has ever been in all of recorded history. Thankfully, the missile has a countdown timer for an hour to stop it from being launched, because I guess it doesn’t matter if everyone is dead yet.”
“How much time do we have left on the timer?” Hanes asked.
“Fifteen minutes, give or take a few.”
“Damn it! Can’t the missile defense batteries just shoot it down?”
“Those haven’t been activated in decades. They would have to power up the railguns.”
“And I assume that when the missile hits Russia, all the missiles from Russia would awaken and fire too?”
“Worse. Every US missile would launch at Russia. Essentially, the world would end. The Moon and M vgfars colonies would be okay, but without supplies from Earth, they would starve to death.”
Hanes thought for a second. “I assume one of you know how to deactivate this missile?”
“That would be me,” said a new voice, and a slightly smaller figure stepped out from the shop. “My name is Alec Harvey, I’m the tech guy on this squad.”
“Okay, I need you all to get behind me. I think I have enough shielding to get us through the parking lot, but I need you to work fast. Come on.”
They all grouped together at the mall’s parking lot entrance. Hanes was in front, with Denman behind him, then Alec, and finally Sara.
“Ready?” Hanes asked. Everyone nodded. “Let’s go, now!”
Hanes opened the door, and tossed the porta-shelter towards the sensor. The shelter set up automatically around it. He bolted out the door, followed by Denman. Hanes blocked the sand with the PR suit while everyone else bolted for the shelter. Alec went in first, followed by Sara. Denman was standing at the door. After Sara hunkered into the shelter, Denman looked in.
An abandoned car was suddenly lifted off the ground. It slammed into Denman who didn’t even manage to scream. He was quickly swept away by the storm. “Denman!” Sara yelled, but she knew it was too late. Hanes waded over to the shelter through the storm.
“Denman is gone. We have to make sure no one else dies today. There will be time to grieve later. Now is the time to be heroes. Stop the missile!”
Alec nodded, and closed the shelter door. Hanes watched as he cut into the sensor’s pole and found the wire. He closed his eyes, and after a few seconds, made the cut. The wire sizzled out, and Alec exhaled. Everyone cheered.
Hanes walked outside. The storm was settling. He unclipped the beacon from his belt and threw it on the ground. It set itself up, and Hanes watched as the light shined up through the clouds.
A few minutes later, the hulking Dropjet screamed out of the sky, and right before it reached the ground, the blue engines roared to life, kicking up a huge cloud of dust. Hanes, Alec, and Sara stepped on, ready to explain to commander Brannon. As the Jet lifted off, Hanes stared down at the city. Why did we do this to ourselves? he wondered.