Author: Patrick Witz
Genre: Science Fiction
Synopsis: NASA J.P.L. Engineers Kevin and Frank have faithfully managed the day-to-day operations of the Mars rover "Opportunity" by the book for years. A chance glimpse of something odd leads the two engineers to break protocol and secretly investigate the anomaly on their own. Going to management too soon would definitely jeopardize the mission, their careers and retirement.
The Mars’ rover camera panned across Marathon Valley’s northern landscape. As the camera continued towards its shutdown position for the night, a tiny flicker of light flashed once and disappeared.
“Frank, did you see that?” Kevin shouted.
Frank took a deep breath and exhaled an annoyed hiss. He forced a half glance up from his computer monitor. “See what?”
Frank paused the screen, freezing the 3-D topography terrain image of Mars’ three-football-field long Marathon Valley. The solar-powered rover, “Opportunity”, would take a month to traverse that valley at its snail-pace. Frank had the responsibility to give it safe operating instructions from millions of miles away.
“That flicker of light, over on the north slope.”
“Kevin, I wasn’t watching the video feed. I’m plotting the course for this month’s run to the valley’s northern rim. What’s so blasted important about lights in the sky?” Frank was not only annoyed, he was as well tired, “They’re called stars, Kevin!”
Kevin glanced over his shoulder at his boss. “I know that Frank. I’m no newbie here. You’re plotting a course to the north rim where the sunlight will be the strongest this time of year on Mars.” To battle Franks sarcastic response, he attempted to pitch it back at his boss. “So there, I know a little about Mars too! Remember, I’ve been here at JPL for four years and…and…and my mother didn’t waste her alimony money from two ex-husbands to pay for my engineering and astronomy degrees. Now I’m telling you, I saw a flicker of light under that rock outcropping on the northern slope just as the camera panned over it.”
“You sure it wasn’t a sun flare off the lens?” Frank countered.
“No. The camera was pointed away from the sun. The camera’s low angle caught the setting sun’s light reflection off something… like a piece of glass, metal, or something.” Kevin attempted an awkward pantomimed hand - arm movement to show the camera’s lens direction in relationship to the sun’s location and resulting light reflection.
“A piece of glass… really Kevin? A piece of glass! Now stop fooling around and help me shut the rover down for the night.”
Kevin seemed frustrated but constrained. “I didn’t say it WAS glass! I said it reflected off something LIKE a piece of glass or shiny metal would reflect light. There’s something out there that created a reflected flicker happen.”
Frank ignored his young assistant, “Kevin, is the camera arm retracted yet? We are losing light and we have limited reserves this time of day. Do your job and let’s shut our little red planet Smart car down. Tomorrow we can pull up today’s downloads and examine it… okay? The wife has some kind of gastronomical experience she calls dinner waiting for me at the house. I’m tired and right now I don’t give a rat’s ass about a flicker of light off Martian stemware.”
Kevin adjusted his thin frame in his chair and attempted to conceal any developing agitation. With his immediate hopes dashed, Kevin bit his lip and shook his head in a slow motion. His boss, at double Kevin’s thirty-years, was soft and heavy... and those years had not been kind to the man. Regardless of the situation, Kevin knew his immediate supervisor pretty well, if Frank said he was done, he was just that… done!
Kevin regained his professional composure and responded in kind, “Fine… camera is now secure. Commencing download of today’s data. Estimated night shut down, forty-two minutes.”
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