Signal Loss (First Chapter, 1400 words)

One

Seventy Days

Kyan Anders drifted in a room brimming with a hundred billion stars. Radiant golds spanned familiar constellations, but it was what lay between the stars that captured his attention. Smudges of galaxies against ebony sky. Glowing stellar lanes dusted with rose. Objects no man could see from Earth, but here they were impossible to miss. It was like seeing, truly seeing, for the first time. 

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Rios said, “but I’ve just received Harmony’s morning broadcast.”

Kyan glanced at his watch. “On my way.” He hooked his instep under a rung and descended into the habmod. A loose gray blanket and sock drifted by. He pushed towards the port comms module, sailed through the daylight rings of the transit tube, and emerged in a halo of screens. An ocean blue baseball cap velcroed to a command chair read Aristarchus. “Give me a quarter gee⁠ vectored along the hab axis.”

The floor fell against Kyan’s feet as he pressed on the cap and laced his arms through the chair’s harness. The Addison Aerospace logo faded on screen with the comms log. Thirty-five conversations separated by seven hundred and sixteen minutes. Kyan scrolled to the newest entry.

A young woman wore an Aristarchus cap over blond hair. Behind her, late afternoon sunlight dappled leafy greens. “Hi, Dad. So, first things first, if I know you, you’re probably all stressed out thinking something happened because my message is early.” The signal pixelated as she spread her fingers, palms facing him. “Don’t worry, everything’s fine. There’s some morning alerts for flares and I’m trying to avoid them. They’re going to get worse, and it might screw up the blackout window. So this sucks. I hope you’ve got some good music queued up.” 

An alert bubbled on the screen:

RIOS - Received 06:20 local - HELIOS reports M-class flare activity expected 08.02.80 06:48 through 08.02.80 13:21. 
Expected magnitude M2-M4. Minor communications disruptions expected with inner planet broadcasts. 

A graphic illustrated line-of-sight between the Aristarchus and Earth. Waypoints showed the Earth’s path over the next few days, a string-of-pearls slipping behind the Sun. Complex field line patterns signified radio interference. Rios updated them with the HELIOS info and the patterns swelled. Earth’s comm tag changed from green to yellow and all of the pearls shifted colors. Yellow, orange, red, black. Signal loss in three days.

Harmony swiped a finger over her bracelet and an ultrasound popped up. Kyan leaned forward. Harmony Richardson, 18 weeks. “There’s your grandson, looking good! I think we’ve browsed a thousand names. I like traditional, but Ryce prefers trendy. You know him. We’ll figure it out. Anyway, we’re keeping the name secret until he’s born. You know, keep a little bit of surprise.”

Kyan’s eyebrows raised and he mirrored her smile. He rested his fingers on the screen. His grandson. She’d told him the evening before his departure. Eight more mission days, then twenty-six transit days. A little more than a month until he could be back with his family.

“Oh, and not sure how much news you’re picking up,” Harmony said, “but something wild happened yesterday. You know that guy who’s always in the tech feeds with the ‘keep dreaming big’ meme? He’s been talking this new ship that twists space, and yesterday he finally got it to work. Well, sort of. He flew to Mars in twelve minutes. Crazy, huh? Check this out.” She flicked her bracelet. Twelve Minutes to Mars. The photo showed James Hayden propped up in a hospital bed, wearing a neck brace, giving a thumbs up. “It says the tech’s at least three years out, but can you imagine? Instead of twenty-six days, you could be home in twelve hours.” A white cat sprang onto her lap and she stroked its fur. “Okay, looks like Halley wants to say hi, too. Well, I miss you. I’ll check the feed for flares, and may need to bump our time tomorrow. Talk to you soon.”

Kyan smiled and tagged the ultrasound. “Rios, give me a hard copy of that.” He slid the photo into the elastic board beside his chair. A dozen other photos were nestled there, pictures of him and Harmony wearing backpacks, family photos of him, Harmony and Lake during the holidays, when Lake was still his wife, and a dog-eared postcard with azure ocean water lapping over bare feet. Getting Away from It All. 

He did a quick once over. A little silver stubble, but acceptable. “Hey, kiddo. Bummer about the flares. Rios updated comms loss to Monday. How are you feeling? Have you felt the baby move yet? I have a million questions.” He tapped the interface and a new window showed orbital diagrams. Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, all on one side of the sun and the Aristarchus on the other. “Not too much to report. I’ve got my final images of Sedna. Today I’ll switch to Eris, then it’s Oort cloud cataloguing and heliopause measurements for the next eight days. You know, I’m not looking forward to comms loss, but it’s awesome for sensors. I’ll be at the quietest place in the system.” Kyan glanced at the family photo. “And for today’s musical selection I’ve got one that me and your mom listened to a million times when she was pregnant. Classic 50’s progressive rock.” The opening chords of Farther strummed in. “Enjoy. Talk to you tomorrow. I love you.” He sent the message and stared at the Addison logo a minute before a sweet scent reset his attention. “Okay, Rios, what’s on the docket for today?”

“Breakfast. I’ve got some eggs and french toast heated for you. It’s the most important meal of the day.”

“Really? Going with the mom approach today?”

Rios’s voice was full of inflection. It was hard to believe he wasn’t sentient. “Addison parameters, crew health.”

“Okay, so, after breakfast?”

“Reposition the drones for Eris imaging. Review night log anomalies.” Rios paused. “Would you like to know about the anomalies?”

Kyan leaned his head on a bent arm. “Do I have to say it?”

“Three visual occultations during wide-field imaging. Would you like to review them now?”

“Just put them on the screen already.”

Three circled stars appeared, each turning black as an object passed before it. Infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, and radio data accompanied the images. Object one was fifty degrees kelvin with moderate reflectivity. Distance was unknown. Rios guessed it was a scattered disc object, and Kyan confirmed. Object two had similar properties. Object three, though, was unexpected.

“You ran sensor diagnostics?”

“Twice. Sensors are within norm.”

No reflectivity, temperature near cosmic background radiation. As far as the sensors could tell, it was a hole in space passing in front of a star. Except it wasn’t a hole. Even a black hole would have some sensor data.

“Any ideas?”

“I checked microwave and x-ray wide field imaging, and found occultations along the same flight line. Based on parallax, it’s probably close, less than half an AU.”

Kyan scratched his cheek. “Okay, retask the drones along the flight line and configure for narrow field imaging. Let’s log it for now.”

“Logged as Unidentified Scattered Disc Object 235C. We need twenty hours of Eris imaging. It’ll add another mission day if we retask.”

He glanced at the ultrasound and back to the unidentified object. Now seventy mission days. It was tempting to just forget about it, log it as an unknown, but he was curious, and curiosity was one of the main things that brought him out here. “Proceed. Let’s also try a radar burst and see what we can see. Can’t hurt.” He unclicked his harness and stood. One-quarter gravity was similar to the Moon, and he bounded like an Apollo-era astronaut. “I’m going to grab some breakfast while everything gets positioned.”

“We seem to have a mystery.”

“I know,” Kyan said, emerging from the transit tube. “Isn’t it great?”

* * * *

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