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The stars burned. Alpheratz, the crowning star of Andromeda, bowed in the lower sky. Vega waned, Fomalhaut waxed. Achernar smoldered over the horizon. Professor James Craig flicked his eyes over each one, counting off the constellations and nebulous gases as a sleepless child counts sheep. He strained his eyes to see the galaxy hidden in the princess’s knee. Lights glinting off the Arianespace’s ELA-3 launch complex behind him blinded the view.
He rolled back his neck, easing the tense knot between his shoulder blades. Spending twelve years stooped over a heap of files or Mid Infrared Instrument had done nothing good for his posture.
He turned to find Dr. Matt Krader standing before the European Spaceport’s sleek silver doors. The dark circles under his eyes mirrored Craig’s own.
“Aye,” his eyes wandered skyward. “Lovely night in’t, doctor?”
A grunt. “French Guiana, mate. Certainly in’t New Castle weather.”
“Monroe wants all Leads in the Control Room.”
Altair set in the northwest. Deneb chased behind. “Be up in a bit, then.”
The closing of the sliding doors hissed in the night. With a small sigh, he dug his hands into wrinkled pockets. A last glance vainly scoured for the elusive Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object visible to the naked eye. Nearly three million light-years away, and still comprehensible to this miniscule conglomerate of carbon standing on a speck of dust hurtling through the Milky Way. Humbling.
Airconditioning hit him like a bullet. Engineers frantically ran about, papers fluttering on clipboards. Scientists paced, muttering equations or statistics. Walls were white, floors immaculate. The precision felt blank and lifeless, counterbalancing the frantic humanness. He immediately missed the stars.
His footsteps echoed over streams of checklists flooding into walkie-talkies: lightweight optics, deployable sunshield, folding segmented mirrors, cryogenic actuators, mirror control micro-shutters. Prayers to reason. If there were prayers to God, they remained silent.
The shift from hallway to Control Room seemed immensely disjointed, as if the small turn of his wrist had unlocked a parallel universe. A long table ran the length of the room, dotted with coffee cups and confidential folders. The figures whose hands twitched on the handles or smoothed the corners sat in composed nervousness. Muted televesized screens mounted every section of wall, depicting an array of angles surrounding their masterpiece. Craig quietly watched the uniformed figures crawl around in last minute procedures. One lone screen in the corner shown the pixelated signs of red-faced protesters, steady streams of newscasters preaching the same dubious scripture. All was silent, yet the tension screamed in terror.
Name cards divided the skittish congregation into specialized instrumentations. Near Infrared Camera, Near Infrared Spectrograph, Mid Infrared Instrument, and Fine Guidance Sensors/Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph. Dr. Krader tapped a pen in the FGS/NIRISS chair. Monroe sat at the head, her hands folded in a direct manner.
“Kind of you to join us, Professor.” Something in her tone reminded him of black coffee. Smooth and bitter. He wanted to spit it out.
His sweating palms greeted the armrests of his chair as he slid into place. “Pleasure, doctor.”
“Surprising that we had to…” her eyes flicked to Krader, “lure you here ten minutes before lift off. Most would be eager to witness our crowning moment.”
If it lifts off. “Aye, doctor. And some are eager to look at the destination.”
“Quite.” A detached smile. “Still, unusual behavior considering recent… rumors. But I am not one for believing gossip.”
An overhead speaker blared. “T-minus nine minutes to lift off.”
Craig felt a tap on his shoulder. “Care for a light?” Solomon Haines of Johnson Space Center sat at his left, shaking a carton in his hand. The Marlboros rattled an invitation.
“Nah, thanks.” He held up a thin hand of refusal. “Don’t smoke.”
Haines gave a dry laugh around the cigarette as he slipped the pack back into his breast pocket. “Neither do I.”
Watching the lighter ignite, Craig’s throat tightened. The tip of the cigarette withered away in ashes, the sultry fingers of flame so easily tearing at the fibers. In a flicker of heat, twelve years of work could burn away. A small miscalculation, a single untested factor. Hours of sweat, days of planning, months of labor. Over a dozen countries around the world. Thousands of workers devoting their careers. $8.7 billion. Gone.
Fear lingered in the air, the unspoken honored guest of the room. Every man and woman before him gnawed on the same anxiety. Every mind raced on the same treadmill of possible blunders. Every heart constricted with the same dread at the mere possibility of being the cause of failure.
After all, someone in the room was a traitor.
Craig found it unsurprising, really. The James Webb Space Telescope was designed as a search for the beginning, the key to unlocking mysteries of the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang, to determining galactic evolution, to understanding the formation of stars in the first stages of budding planetary systems. Perhaps, a tantalizing perhaps, the measurements of chemical properties in these systems would find a correlation with earth’s. Perhaps, they would find the potential for extraterrestrial life.
But science could no longer be performed for the simple sake of discovery. Politics were always at play, NASA subcommittees always parched for grants. Two years into office, President Sanders had been supportive of the sciences, though certainly not out of the kindness of his heart. JWST represented a last ditch effort to prove the United States remained a leader in space. An expensive and controversial effort, sucking millions in funding from planetary science and solar physics missions. All senior management had been replaced for a fresh outlook, and still constant glitches and money shortages left the original launch date seven years too optimistic.
Certainly, there were many who could be Dark Matter.
Oh yes, everyone in the room had received the emails. Untraceable, unnerving, and completely undeniable. The diabolic plot of some inside source converted to anti-JWST activist. The messages started out small, growing elaborate and chilling. Prepare for flames. All signed under that d***ed pen name...
“Ladies,” Monroe rose cutting off Craig’s thought, “gentlemen. Certainly, this road has been a difficult one to tread. Yet as SWG Chair, I believe I can speak for us all when I say the product was well worth the effort. This is a tremendous opportunity, not only for NASA and the ESA, but for the entire scientific community. Despite predictable uncertainties, every possible precautionary measure has been checked.” No relieved sighs greeted this formality. “And double checked. No unforeseen failures will be at the fault of…” a twitch in the plaster smile, “human circumstances.”
Johnson nudged Craig’s shoulder. “You know what they say about the center of every universe.” He flicked the tip of his cigarette in Monroe’s direction. “A black hole is at its heart.”
The speaker reverberated. “T-minus six minutes.”
He frowned, his mind back to stars. “Not sure I catch your meaning, then.”
A low chuckle. “Oh, but I’m sure you’re the only one in the room who does.”
“Mr. Johnson.” Another cup of that black brew. “I’d ask you to put out your cigarette, but as I’m sure you are already intimately acquainted with Control Room policies, I’m confident you were about to do so yourself.”
“Certainly, Dr. Monroe.” Grinding the stub into the folder before him, “I’m always one for taking policy into his own hands.”
“T-minus four minutes.”
Orion races Taurus. No, d*** it. Taurus rises in November here...
“You know what’s interesting?” Johnson flicked the crushed butt into his congealing coffee. “Matt Krader.”
Gemini? “In’t the worst name I ever heard.”
“No. The letters.”
Aries. Craig allowed a small smile. Certainly Aries. He turned to address Johnson with real attention. “Letters, mate?”
“Do you know what Matt Krader spells?”
The smile slipped from his face and crashed into the renewed sweat of his palms. “Not sure I like what you’re hinting at, then…”
Johnson slowly opened the folder before him, ashes sliding as the edge rose. Inside was complete emptiness save for one lonely note stuck to the back:
Matt Krader is
“T-minus two minutes.”
Monroe face cracked in smile. Krader’s pen tapped the table at a deafening whisper. The screens swelled on the walls, the flame of engines breathing life. Millions of lightyears away, the Andromeda Galaxy spun desperately on its axis. The princess writhed in her chains.
“No.” The pulse in Craig’s temple echoed in bloody throbs. “You’ve nerve to accuse a man based on coincidence.”
“The universe does not allow coincidences.”
“T-minus one minute.”
Monroe’s fingers clutched at the edge of the table. “This is it.” Her knuckles went white.“This is it!”
Aries rose. The god of war atop his throne of infinite sky.
The screens went black. A small electronic noise, like the decrescendo of locus wings twined in a radiation zap, and all was dark.
“What’s going on?”
“Everyone, remain calm.” Even in darkness, Monroe’s presence seemed immense. “The backup generator will turn on in-”
Another small buzz and the room burst into life. Much remained unchanged in their microcosm. A mug lay on its side, coffee oozing from the mouth. The nervous faces looked less composed, openly strained. Screens stayed black. The loudspeaker spoke no more.
Fear cackled. Unsettled murmurs grew into unanswerable questions. Pupils dilated, darting around warily. Doctors shrunk from the colleagues at their side. Scientists demanded things Craig could not comprehend. Someone slammed a fist on the table. Haines sat back with another cigarette, taming fire before his lips. Krader snapped the pen, ink bloodying his hands. Monroe tightened her reins, but they were connected only to madness.
A third and final buzz. A neon green cursor flashed at the center of the screens.
“What the h***?”
The cursor flashed. A beacon of hope and a fire of h***.
The throbbing in Craig’s head grew louder. Are you our Perseus or our monster?
It seemed an eternity before text began to appear. Pixel by pixel, the horror of the words displayed before the followers’ eyes grew into full, heinous fruition. Monstrosity blossomed. The honored guest bowed in the limelight.
Watch her burn. ~Dark Matter
“What does that mean?”
“I want a full visual on the telescope! Someone get a hold of the Tech Room!”
“What the h***’s going on in there?”
“Who did this?”
The final question resonated in the air. Silence took hold for the briefest of moments. Then Aries opened the gates of war.
“I never liked the looks of you. You never had your heart in this project!”
“You were never there when the emails were sent!”
“Me? I was in the testing facility! You on the other hand…”
“I? You dare accuse me?”
“I never trusted working with these damn Europeans! I always said this should be an American project!”
“Americans are the bloody idiots that prompt these attacks, you twit!”
“Enough!” Monroe stood. The hatred in her face blackened her eyes. She aged a hundred years and towered a thousand feet. “Enough. Now, keep in mind we have no idea what exactly is occurring. As of this moment, there is no direct evidence to assume anything has damaged the Ariane 5 rocket. If the launch vessel is intact, then it can be logically concluded the telescope may be unharmed…” A massive confusion rose into a single voice of chaos. She slammed down a palm. “I will have silence!” None dared breathe. “Guards have already been dispatched and will arrive momentarily. Everyone will be questioned. Suspects will be taken into custody. Any attack,” murmurs at the word, “or attempt of attack against our agency is an attack on the American government. This is an act of treason. It will not be dealt with lightly.”
Haines blew out a cloud of smoke. “How can any of us be suspects if we were all in the room?”
“Well,” Monroe’s voice turned hard, “we weren’t all in the room ten minutes before lift off, were we?”
Every head turned to stare dead in the face of the professor who tallied stars.
Craig shook his head slowly, his neck strained upward to find the night sky. All that greeted him was a plastered ceiling. He smiled a joyless smile, wondering if he would ever lay eyes on the virgin princess of the night again.
When he looked back to earth, his eyes swept the room to find the universe’s blackened center. He looked into the cold eyes of the most powerful woman. He looked into the smirking eyes of the man who took policy into his own hands. He looked into the fearful eyes of the man who carried a madman’s name. And he knew.
He knew which one would dare to set Andromeda on fire.