Foreword to Story #1 by Cathy Harris
Peter was taken from us almost a year ago now. When I first met him, he was a good citizen but eventually his work on The Book of Stories caught up with him. We tried our very best to protect him, it was no use, the forces against us were just too great.
He was quite brilliant, the book, along with the mission, were his idea and knowing that the end would eventually come, we included his own story as the very first one. It’s the story of how all this came to be and also how we first met. It was a total accident, a fluke of timing really.
You’ve opened the book now, so you know what it is. Originally it was just an archival project but then of course it became much more. We would create a comprehensive archive like no other, to detail the real history of Earth and what it was really like to live in this time. We would store it somewhere safe in the hope that truth would one day be restored.
I should add, Peter’s daughter lives with me now. She misses her mother, father and brother greatly, but she is happy.
Story #1. Peter Verhoven
The aging bicycle creaked as Peter began the slow climb back uphill. Every day he cursed the journey from the control room to the sensor station and back, just to get a piece of paper saying it was okay to start work. Today was worse than most, they had only given him 55 seconds of sensor time.
Normally he would count the lights as he passed them, but he was just too tired this time. Instead he tried to think about his family back on Earth and the day when he might see them again.
Peter's route was along a narrow tunnel cut into the red rock. Overhead, sulphurous lamps every 50 meters or so, counted out the lonely journey. The two facilities worked closely together, but the only person to ever travel this route was the control room manager at the start of every shift.
Finally, at the end of the passageway he came to a steel door. He propped the bike against the wall, ready for tomorrow and paused to cough a few times. The Martian dust was hard on the lungs. Searching for his ID card, he self-consciously glanced at the camera. Damn, don’t do that, he reprimanded.
As he searched, he heard a faint click from the door. It was the cameras again, somebody recognized him. He reached for the door handle and letting out a sigh of relief, opened it.
The engineer, Amy, was already there. "Morning," she mumbled, focused on preparations.
"Hey, I think your dumb boyfriend is watching me."
"He's not my boyfriend and anyway, if it wasn't him, you know they'd get someone else. Have you got the thing, yeah?”
Peter smiled back, “fuck you.” She knew he hated the bike ride.
Peter walked straight up to the large picture of the ruling Carter-Zhang family on the side wall, stopped and gave it a salute. “Fuck you too” he whispered.
He turned back around to Amy who was sitting at one of the four control stations and smiled. "Yeah. At least in here we can talk. It’s nice to be trusted."
Aside from the painting, the chilly room was sparse and functional. On one of the beige walls hung three large screens, each displaying critical information about the instruments.
He looked at the first screen, showing the targets for his shift. “Looks like it’s gonna be a dull day. After twelve years of looking you’d think they could find something decent for us to scan… You know, we should get some music in here.”
Amy looked up for a second. “I heard they announced another mission. The launch is in two months’ time.”
“Those poor idiots. Do they really know what they’re getting into? How many is that, eleven?”
“More like twelve. It’s one of ours I think.”
“Really. We found it?”
“Yep. I don’t remember it, but it was on our list.”
“Hell, then we’re responsible. All these missions, off to find God knows what and none of them ever coming back.”
“We’re just pushing buttons. If it wasn’t us, it would be someone else. When you’ve spent a truck load of money on a six-hundred-meter-wide telescope, nothing’s gonna get in the way.”
“Yeah” Peter sighed. “So, we’ve got 55 seconds for the shift.”
“We had 90 yesterday. Things must be tight.”
“We’ll just have to be careful.”
Peter’s screen was showing a low-res preview of the first target. It was all just white dots on a black screen at this stage to him. He confirmed a few prompts on his screen and raised his hand to the 'activate' switch to the side of his console. It didn't really need a hard switch, Peter thought. A click of a button on-screen would have the same effect, but the designers probably wanted to convey the seriousness of activating the sensors. It was an action to be planned and calculated, not a trivial click.
He turned to Amy. "Are we good to go?"
"We're all set, just keep it under five seconds for each job alright?"
With that, he flicked the switch to the ON position and felt the hum of machinery in his mind. Five seconds later the pre-programmed cut-off kicked in, and it was over. In the data center nearby, he had just filled a bank of storage arrays with a vast amount of raw sensor data, and no doubt set another PhD student on his research career. On to the next one.
The screen now read HD 40307, another nameless star system about forty light-years out.
He confirmed the settings and reached for the switch once more. "Are we good?"
"Yep," came the response from Amy and with that he flipped the switch once more. As he drew his hand away, he glanced at the preview screen and in that instant saw a small flash of light.
"Did you see that?" he called to Amy.
"I don't know." Peter quickly selected the timer override to keep the sensors going. "I saw a flash, a small explosion maybe. Let's give it a couple of seconds more." He waited, the initial five seconds elapsed, and he was now going over. If there was nothing there, he was going to be in real trouble. "Shit, there's nothing. I'm turning it off," but as he went for the switch, it flashed again and then another. He held his breath. What the hell was it? He started to count to five again, that would be it, whatever happens. One, two and then another flash, this one different, elongated and lasting longer maybe a full second. Four, five, that was it, time to switch off. He reached for the switch, paused a second, nothing. He flicked it off.
Peter felt a pain rising in his chest. At about fifteen seconds, this was going to be trouble. They guy who had this job before him hardly lasted six months. He was hauled away for subversive behavior and never heard from again.
Peter and Amy sat in silence for another minute. Peter muttered, "There definitely was something, wasn't there?"
Amy looked over at him "I think I saw something on the screen, I'm not sure."
"We won't have playback for at least a few hours. This isn't going to be good," replied Peter.
Amy added, "There's no point in running the sensors again. They'll probably kill our access while they work it out."
All Peter could manage was "Yeah." Either way, things were going to change.
Silence descended on the room once more. How long would it be? The compliance officer was in another office, usually about five minutes’ walk away. It probably took a minute for the information to reach his console and then he'd be walking pretty fast. Possibly here in three.
The compliance officer was the representative of The Earth Council here on Mars. He was a real asshole.
Peter pondered what to do. He thought of his two infant children, if he was taken away, what would happen to them? Why the hell did I break my own rules? If this goes the wrong way, I'll disappear into the ether. The compliance guys will have me for wasting resources.
It's politics, what would a politician do? I need to get out in front, I need spin, I'd better start selling this one hard.
At that moment the door opened, Peter immediately jumped up and shouted. "A most wonderful discovery!"