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LCROSS illustration
LCROSS will collide with the Moon early Friday in a search for water ice. Or is it on a completely different mission? (credit: NASA)

Adios, Star People

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Friday, October 9, 2009, Early Morning
LCROSS Command Center, T Minus Two Hours

The General walked into the small conference room in the command center and sat down at the head of the table. A dozen people were sitting around the table, notebooks and briefing folders in front of them in case they were needed.

“Okay, John,” the General said. “What’s the status on our birds?”

“We are working no issues at this time, sir,” O’Neill answered. “The Centaur separation went off without a hitch. The shepherd is powered up and all systems are nominal. Both spacecraft will be ready to go when the order is given.”

The General turned to the person in charge of the observatories. “Captain Mitchell, what about monitoring? What’s the status?”

Mitchell did not even need to look at his chart, since he had printed it out only five minutes earlier. “MMT is go. Keck is go. AMOS is go. IFA is go. Mount Wilson is no-go, clouds. Palomar is 50/50. Hubble is go. Crystal 1 is go. Crystal 2 is go. Crystal 3 is no go.”

“I thought they were making progress on Crystal 3,” the General asked.

“They fixed the rate gyro sensor problem, sir,” Mitchell replied, “but their comm has been intermittent. Colonel Harriman at NRO says that they do not consider Crystal 3 reliable enough to use. So it is red, no go.”

“And Palomar?”

“Clouds in the area, sir. They’re not sure they’ll have a clear view at impact. We may not know until the actual impact time.”

The General turned to Major Landis. “What’s the status of the target?”

“No change, sir,” he replied. He picked up the remote control unit in front of him and turned on the wide screen TV on the side of the room. It showed a monochrome image, black and white and many shades of gray. It was centered on Cabeus Crater, and a strange geometric shape barely visible in the regolith—something clearly not natural. “This image was taken about forty-five minutes ago by LRO. We have detected no change in the target. Heat signature is still nominal.” He pressed another button on his remote and a shaded red ellipse appeared over the shape. “This is our current targeting projection. We still estimate over 80% probability of hitting the alien outpost with the Centaur, and over 85% with LCROSS itself.”

The General turned to Major Jackson. “What’s the public intel?”

“Nothing’s changed,” she replied. “CNN and Fox are covering it live, but they’re still talking about the science angle. There are only a couple of nuts on the Internet who have any inkling what is going on, but they’re so marginal that nobody takes them seriously. Bigfoot chasers and the like, sir. Oh, and Hoagland was on Coast to Coast again warning that all that water that’s been detected on the Moon is from leaking alien septic tanks from the ancient cities.”

The room broke into laughter.

“Really? Septic tanks?” the General asked with a grin.

“That’s what he said, sir. Apparently he thinks that we’re going to bomb ancient ruins on the Moon. Honestly, sir, are you sure that this guy isn’t on our payroll?”

“If he was, I couldn’t tell you,” the General said, “but he’s not. We get his nonsense free of charge. But it’s still useful to have somebody saying crazy things that are only a short distance from the truth.” The General didn’t have to say anything else. They all knew that the alien base on the Moon had only appeared six years earlier. There was nothing ancient about it. It was new, and it was in Earth’s backyard. It was just like Khrushchev putting missiles in Cuba in 1962. The base had to go.

“When are you expecting authorization from the President, sir?” someone asked.

“We were supposed to have it twenty minutes ago, but they’re taking their time. I’ve told General Hammond that we need authorization no later than T Minus 30 or we have to abort. If we get the authorization, the President will be monitoring the attack from the Situation Room at the White House.”

The General looked around the room. “Anything else?”

Landis’ hand shot up. “Yes, sir. Why don’t we just try talking to the Star People, sir?” His tone sounded innocent and childlike.

The room broke into guffaws. Landis was the unit’s resident smartass.

The General pointed a finger at Landis and pretended to shoot him. “Just remember: If I go down, I’m taking you with me,” he said. But he was smiling. He stood up from the table and the rest of the room stood up as well.

“I know that I’ve said it before,” the General said, “but I will say it again: you have been the best damn team that I’ve ever had the honor of working with. So get back to your consoles and in just under two hours we’ll blow these guys to smithereens.”

LCROSS Command Center, T Minus 33 Minutes

The phone in front of him buzzed and a red light flashed on the receiver. O’Neill picked it up. “Crossbow.”

“Crossbow, this is Rampart.” It was the General. The call sign was part of the authentication procedures.

“Roger, Rampart, what are your orders?”

“Launch commit, Crossbow. Launch code is Charlie, Romeo, Mike, one, one, four.”

O’Neill wrote the letters and numbers down on a pad in front of him. “Roger, sir. Confirmation code?”

“Oscar, Papa, Echo. Read it back to me, Crossbow.”

“Roger, sir. Launch code charlie romeo mike one one four. Confirmation code oscar papa echo.”

“Confirmed,” the General said. “Execute your orders.”

“Roger, sir.” O’Neill hung up the phone. Man, that was close, he thought. Only three minutes to spare. He turned a key in front of him and a small plastic cover popped up, revealing a red rocker switch. He pressed it, then typed the code into his keyboard: CRM-114, and pressed return. The words “CONFIRMATION CODE?” flashed on his screen and he typed in “OPE.” But he did not press return. Instead, he turned on his microphone, which put him on the general communications loop. “This is Crossbow. We have a valid launch order from Rampart. I am about to initiate. Everybody look sharp.” O’Neill pressed the return key, enabling his people to send the commands to the spacecraft.

“And away we go…” he muttered to himself.

LCROSS Command Center, T Minus 11 Minutes

O’Neill watched his screens. So far everything was going to plan. The comm loop was mostly silent, as nobody had anything to say. O’Neill wanted to relax in his chair, but he couldn’t.

The comm loop crackled to life. “Crossbow, this is LFC. I’ve just lost telemetry from the birds.” O’Neill’s back stiffened. “This is Crossbow, say again LFC.”

“I’ve lost all telemetry from the shepherd and the Centaur. They’re both offline, sir.”

“What’s the DSN status?” O’Neill asked. Losing both spacecraft simultaneously had to be a communications problem. They were hundreds of kilometers apart by now.

“DSN is green, Crossbow. They have no issues.”

O’Neill pressed some buttons on his console, calling up data from the dishes at Goldstone. They were still online. Could it be a software glitch?

“Crossbow, this is TEL. I’ve just lost the MMT.”

O’Neill turned to look over at Captain Mitchell’s console just forward and to his left. There was a placard with the letters “TEL” on top of it, short for “telescopes.” In addition to the data display screen in front of him, Mitchell also had a couple of screens divided into quads, each showing webcam videos from the observatories that were monitoring the impact. On several of them, he could see images of people sitting at their own consoles in Arizona and Hawaii. One of the quads was now showing only static. That must have been the MMT on Mount Hopkins. As O’Neill watched, another screen went to static.

“Crossbow, TEL, we just lost AMOS and IFA.” O’Neill tried to remember where they were located. The two observatories were on the same mountain on Maui, right? As he watched, two more screens went to static. “Sir, Keck and Mount Wilson just went down too.”

This had to be a communications problem. Something in their software, maybe? A computer virus attack?

O’Neill knew that the General would be monitoring everything from his office, he didn’t need to update him. He needed to figure out what the problem was. He thumbed his microphone to the main loop. “This is Crossbow. Listen up, people. We are having major communications problems with the spacecraft and the observatories. We’re going to switch to the backup comm server…”

“Crossbow, this is LRO.” It was Landis. “We just got an image from our bird. I’m putting it up on the big screen, sir.”

In the front of the control room the LCROSS mission badge disappeared. It was replaced by an image of the Moon, of the crater that was their target point. Off to one side of the image were a bunch of bright blue spikes, almost like long thin gas jets, rising from the Moon’s surface.”

“What the hell is that,” O’Neill said, forgetting that he still had his microphone keyed on so that it went out over the communications loop.

“This was taken by LRO just over a four minutes ago, sir,” Landis said. “I count eight of them.”

Just then the phone to O’Neill’s left buzzed. Damnit, O’Neill thought, what the heck is that? He picked up the phone.

“Colonel, this is Captain Quinn. I’m transferring a call to you from General Marks at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.” Davis-Monthan was in Arizona, only a short distance from Mount Hopkins and the MMT. The phone clicked. “This is General Marks, who am I speaking to?”

“This is Colonel O’Neill, LCROSS Command Center, California, sir.”

“Colonel, I’m looking out my office window right now to the southeast, in the direction of Mount Hopkins. The top of the mountain is glowing.”

“Glowing, sir?”

“Yes, there were a couple of flashes about two minutes ago. It’s now faded to a dull red glow. I believe that you had something on the top of that mountain, Colonel?”

“Yes, sir,” O’Neill replied.

“It’s gone now, Colonel.”

“Roger, sir.” O’Neill hung up the phone on the general.

This wasn’t a communications problem. Something had taken out those observatories. He keyed on his microphone again, “LFC, this is Crossbow. Anything on our birds?”

“No, sir. Nothing. I just have no telemetry at all… Sir? Goldstone just went down. Repeat, I have no communications with Goldstone.”

The phone rang again. O’Neill picked it up. “Yes?”

“This is Rampart.” It was the General. “Status report.”

“Sir, we’ve lost contact with both spacecraft, Goldstone, and all of the observatories. I just received a call from General Marks at Davis-Monthan reporting that Mount Hopkins, where one of our observatories was located, may have just been destroyed. The general reported a double flash. Sir, we also have an image from LRO. It looks like they launched something at us, sir. At least eight of them.”

There was a long pause on the end of the line. “What do you think it is, John?” the General asked, dropping all protocol.

“Sir… we were going to impact them. Maybe they decided to hit us first.”

There was only a pause on the other line, then the General’s voice, sounding grim. “Yes, that’s my thought too.”

Just then the floor started to shake. Part of the ceiling fell in. O’Neill dove underneath his console. The building was built to withstand earthquakes, but this was no earthquake. The console didn’t provide much protection, but it was better than nothing. Ceiling tiles and pieces of the roof were falling. Then the shaking stopped. Surprisingly, the lights stayed on. O’Neill looked up. The row of consoles in front of him had been smashed by a beam that had fallen from the roof. It had taken out Landis, crushing him to death at his console.

There was shouting. People were pulling themselves and others out of the wreckage. “Colonel! Colonel!” someone yelled, helping him to his feet. “Are you okay, sir? You’re bleeding.” O’Neill felt the side of his face. It was wet.

“We’re okay! We’re okay!” someone else yelled through the dust. “They missed us.”

Something nagged at O’Neill, something he couldn’t quite figure out. Then it hit him: Mount Hopkins was taken out by a double hit. They were going to hit the Moon twice, with the Centaur and the LCROSS. Maybe the aliens had the same idea. Hit them twice, just to be sure. That was the first hit. O’Neill waited for the second.

The roof caved in.