Chapter 1: The Broken Probe
Arec waved from across the lab as he headed for the door. Saia looked up, but before she could reply, he was gone, and the door clicked shut behind him.
Mired in a backlog of data analysis, she had been looking at the viewscreens for far too long. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the longer distance as she looked through the clear walls that ran along the front of her office in the Letarri Astroscience Lab. The nearby desks and offices were empty.
Every day for the past six months, she had been wading through data from remote exploration probes, compiling data on stars and systems that lay beyond The Great Reach, a vast, starless, black void that began only a few light-years away.
The project was funded by a collective of high-ranking members of the Letarri community, and the mandate was to hopefully find potential candidate systems for a future colonization mission.
She rubbed her eyes, then turned her chair toward the back of her office. Through the window there, she could see the suns had already set.
It’s dark already, she thought to herself. I must be the last one still --
One of her viewscreens suddenly chirped. Surprised, she turned back to her desk and tapped the screen to answer the call.
“Hey Saia. You’re still here?” came a scratchy, aged voice. Saia recognized it immediately.
“Hi Milte. You know, I thought I was the only one silly enough to be here this late.”
Milte chuckled. “We should have coordinated this. We could have gotten something to eat!”
It had been far too long since Saia had eaten. “I could go for Nuhennel’s right now in the worst way,” she mused.
“They don’t deliver do they?”
“No, but we could stop there on the way out tonight. You could bring some home for Alene, too.”
“Ooo, she’d love that!” Milte replied excitedly. “But I can’t go anywhere yet.”
“I’m jammed up here with a busted probe. The failure report is almost done, but I’m not sure how to log it. The status codes in the data feed are all mixed up.”
“Want some help?” she offered.
Even over the comm system, Milte's sigh of relief was audible. “You’re too good to me, Saia.”
She smiled. “No problem. Send it over to my screen.”
“On its way,” Milte replied. “Dinner’s on me!”
* * *
Milte was right. The status codes didn’t make sense at all. Normally, one whole block of data would begin with status codes and then every detector and sensor would report in sequence, providing a snapshot of readings from a given moment in the probe’s journey.
In this case, everything seemed to be reporting correctly up to a certain point, and then some kind of event or failure must have occurred. After that, the status codes were much further apart in the data stream.
Had something caused them to suddenly begin reporting at half normal rate?
Every status code sequence began with 3 sets of numbers: 008 269 333. It ended with the same sequence, but with the sets reversed: 333 269 008. This made it easy to identify and separate the status codes from the rest of a given data block.
She picked a block of data and broke it up into 3 sections: on the left, she posted the data block before the status codes. In the middle, she posted the bookended status codes. On the right, she posted the data block after the status codes.
The data blocks on either side of the status codes were asymmetrical. The status codes weren’t reporting at half rate.
Maybe at a partial or intermittent rate?
She repeated the process several times with other data blocks. The results were the same. The block before always contained 2048 sets. The block after contained 4096 sets.
Could the status code clock have malfunctioned to the point that it reported at such an exact interval of the whole data stream? It seemed very unlikely. But the ratio… it couldn’t be a coincidence.
She scrolled back and forth idly through the columnated pages of data blocks that she had built. Back and forth she looked at the layouts and the numbers for a clue of some kind. And that’s when she saw it…
Anaamu! she gasped at her own shortsightedness, then abruptly turned and called up the technical documentation for the probe design on another viewscreen and skimmed through it, jumping from section to section until she found what she was looking for.
She stared in disbelief, looking back and forth at the two screens.
Almost autonomously, her hand reached out and tapped back a call to Milte.
“Hey, Saia, any luck?”
“Milte, do you have access to the requisition and fulfillment records from this batch of probes?”
“Yeah sure. You think it’s a bad batch?”
“Not exactly.” Saia could hear him tapping away on his viewscreens. The characteristic chirps of acknowledgement echoing over the call.
“Looks like the req was for 1000 of the AX-1 probes for first quarter of the year. The fulfillment indicates that they were delivered on time.”
“The AX-1 is dual role, Milt. I just checked the technical docs.”
“I don’t understand,” he replied.
“The probe can be used for deep space or fitted with prop turbines for oceanic use. They use the same chassis.”
“Okay, but what about the status codes?”
“They’re fine. The probe has an additional set of water-based analysis sensors.”
“The additional readings are atmospheric,” Saia explained. “I think it may have passed through an environment with enough water vapor to trigger the additional sensors.”
There was a long moment of silence before Milte spoke again. “You know what this means?”
“We may have a candidate world,” replied Saia. “And we might want to get some really strong drinks.”