Heike gulped, transfixed by the thousands of silhouetted figures staring back at her. Well, not just at her, but that didn’t soothe her nerves much. She shuffled restlessly in her seat, overly conscious of leaving sweat marks on the cushions.
Glancing sideways, she checked to see what her colleagues were doing. They were all sitting in their chairs, making a curved line that ran the length of the stage, with a single podium in the middle. They all showed varying degrees of discomfort. A man three seats down kept sipping his water flask profusely. Either he was just pretending, or he would be bursting for the toilet before the event had even started.
The six astronauts, half sitting on either side of the podium seemed the most relaxed, they were chatting and leaning back in their chairs, all wearing matching blue polo shirts and cream trousers. They seemed totally unbothered by the stage lights and cameras zoomed in on their faces. Heike personally felt like she was on some sort of production, and if she was going to get through this, she’d have to put on one hell of an act.
‘Welcome everybody,’ boomed a voice across the auditorium. ‘Please take your seats as we welcome the administrator of NASA, David Miller, to the podium.’
A round of applause thundered from the audience as a thin man with rounded glasses stood up and approached the podium. Heike clapped along with everyone else. She’d gotten to know David well over the past few months, he’d been the one to request her to join the new organisation.
‘Hello everyone,’ David said in his Southern-American accent. Heike watched his eyes dart towards the teleprompter that sat out of sight from the crowd. ‘First of all, I would like to thank the city of Eindhoven for welcoming us here and preparing this event for us. The Netherlands has always been at the forefront of societal change, and so seems a fitting place to host another.’ He waited while another round of applause echoed throughout the auditorium.
‘As you are all aware, humanity has had to constantly adapt to survive. New dangers threaten our existence every year, whether it be a deadly pandemic, climate change, or indeed ourselves. One threat that we have been fortunate to avoid up until this point however is not from the Earth but from above.’
David turned and Heike felt a rush of panic as he gestured towards her, the cameras and eyes of the audience following him.
‘Two years ago, our very own astrophysicist, Dr Heike Bartal made a discovery that forced us to rethink our priorities in space. On the 17th of January 2030, an interstellar asteroid was detected approaching our solar system. Dr Bartal, being the discoverer, was given the honour of naming it. She settled on Viatrix, Latin for the one who travels.’
Heike gave an awkward wave. Her cheeks were burning, and she knew her smile must look more like a grimace. Did this dress show her sweat marks?
David swiped his hand and the large screen behind them revealed several low-resolution infrared images. Relieved that she was no longer the centre of attention, Heike turned to look at the pictures she’d already seen hundreds of times. They were grainy and pixelated but showed a gigantic glowing object with a trailing heat signature.
‘In the two years since its discovery, we have been carefully monitoring Viatrix’s characteristics,’ said David. ‘The first is its sheer velocity. A typical asteroid in our solar system travels at around 27km/s, Viatrix is travelling over two hundred times faster. This interstellar speed raises some interesting questions, specifically around its origins. Viatrix is certainly extrasolar, but its velocity appears to even rule out the closest dozen star systems. In fact, its velocity suggests that it may have circulated the Milky Way several times, continually accelerating through deep space. It could be a treasure-trove of knowledge, a frozen sample of the universe from billions of years in the past.’
He again swiped his hand as the slides changed behind him. ‘The other extraordinary characteristic about Viatrix is its size. It has redefined the classification of what an asteroid can be, being over 2474km in diameter, roughly the size of Pluto. Its sheer size means it has a gravity that could, in theory, attract other asteroids towards it, a magnet if you will, collecting samples from across the Milky Way galaxy.’
Heike found herself staring at the large screens behind them. The display now showed a diagram comparing the surface area of Pluto with the asteroid.
‘Unlike other interstellar asteroids in the past,’ continued David. ‘Viatrix’s trajectory is uncertain, it appears to be on an elliptical course to the centre of our solar system, potentially placing it within the margin of error of Earth. Whilst the probability of a collision is negligible, any impact from an object this size, at such a speed, would not only wipe out the entire human species but every single living organism on the planet. To give you some perspective, if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was around the size of Mount Everest, the diameter of Viatrix is equivalent to stacking nearly two and a half thousand Everest’s on top of each other. Therefore, you can hopefully see why we are erring on the side of caution.’
Heike could sense the wave of fear wash over the crowd. Murmuring and chatter had begun where silence had been before. If David had aimed to scare the living daylight out of the audience, he was doing a good job.
David raised his hands to try and calm the chatter. ‘That being the case, humanity has risen to the call. Today, we are here to officially announce the formation of ICERN, the most ambitious space collaboration in history. ICERN is a merger of the five largest space agencies in the world, ISRO, CNSA, ESA, Roscosmos and NASA, sharing resources and funding like never before.’
Heike saw the five space agency logos appear on a black, star-filled background, circulating a new ICERN logo in the centre.
‘With me today are the other four directors and administrators of the agencies,’ David said, gesturing to those at the other end of the stage from Heike. ‘Since the formation of ICERN, we have fast-tracked the launch of the SEIA Missions, a ten-stage operation to establish a response and haven on Mars. Within SEIA, there are two key programmes, SOLAR and Obsidian.’
Heike watched as the ICERN logo moved up the screen and three new badges materialised underneath. A circular SEIA logo with the triangular SOLAR and hexagon-shaped Obsidian badge beneath.
‘I would now like to invite to the podium Camilla Abbink,’ said David. ‘She is the newly appointed communications coordinator at ICERN, and I’ll let her take it from here.’ He then stepped down from the podium and returned to his seat.
Heike watched as a dark-haired woman a few seats down stood up and walked towards the podium. She let out a subtle cough before looking up at the teleprompter.
‘Thank you, David,’ she said. ‘Before I continue, I would also like to thank and acknowledge our partner companies, that of SpaceX and the AI SpaceFactory, who have made this ambitious mission possible. Without their infrastructure and experience, it is unlikely we would have met the time frame needed for this response.’ She let a polite round of applause travel through the audience before continuing. ‘I personally believe that I have the easiest speech out of everyone here today. I have the great honour of introducing our first-ever crew of the SEIA I mission.’
At this, Camilla turned and gestured to the six people in blue polo shirts. They stood and waved, receiving an enthusiastic round of applause as the cameras swivelled to focus on them. Heike looked up to see the photos of the crew on the screen, their names printed underneath.
‘These brave astronauts will be the first SEIA crew to set up the SOLAR base on Mars,’ stressed Camilla. ‘Leading the mission will be Commander Beth Olson, former pilot in the Royal Air Force and now spearheading the mission to protect not just humanity but the entire planet.’
Heike zoned out of Camilla’s speech. She’d already heard it of course — they’d done about five of these dress rehearsals since arriving in Eindhoven. She instead used her concentration to go over her own speech, she was on after Camilla.
She had the teleprompter as a backup of course, but she didn’t like to use it. She needed to do a good job, she already felt like an imposter sitting here with all these established scientists. Sure, she’d technically discovered Viatrix, but that had been just luck, no skill involved at all. And now, somehow, she’d landed a position at ICERN, with hardly any experience… At least she’d have five years to work at it, five years before her discovery arrived to play.
Come on, you can do this, it’s a good job.
Chidi forced himself to keep staring into the mirror. No, he had to let it go, he couldn’t continue to mope about his car crash of a career. He just had to pay his time in this dump and then he might be able to get back on track. With his scores, they’d be mad to waste him here.
‘Sorry to rush you Chidi, but your shift starts in seven minutes,’ rang a voice throughout the room.
Chidi turned back to his bed. It was only three steps from his bathroom mirror, one if he lunged. The entire room was in fact barely ten metres long and just over an arm’s width wide. He’d been cooped up in here for five months now, and it was clear by the state of the room.
Chidi liked to think he kept things tidy, but the mess had gradually crept upon him. Dirty clothes were piled near the washing basket, empty plates from the night before were still strewn over the desk. His half-completed Lego set of the Eye of Sauron was taking up the rest of the floor space, with the remaining Lego pieces positioned on the floor in separate bags. The only thing that looked as fresh as the day it had arrived was his monitor that doubled as his television, it sat above the desk on the wall, an old 2030 model but perfectly functional. The internet on-site was slow but manageable — thankfully, he’d quickly learnt that by switching his other devices off, he could get a reasonably good service.
Over the past few months, he’d gotten into a bit of a routine, he liked hearing the BBCX News stream in the morning, it kept him connected to the rest of the world, a tall feat considering where he was.
Grabbing his last ironed shirt from the wardrobe and chucking the coat hanger onto his bed, he caught the tail end of the news report.
‘Breaking news this morning, the first close-up photograph of Asteroid Viatrix goes viral, captured by the Mars Huygens telescope. The astonishing image shows the true size and appearance of the asteroid, allowing scientists to analyse its composition in greater detail. The interstellar asteroid, which made headlines five years ago when it entered our solar system, has now reached the main asteroid belt just beyond Mars. ICERN released a statement today, confirming that if left alone, Viatrix would travel within the keyhole margin of Earth, reaching the planet in over three months’ time. Communications director, Camilla Abbink, confirmed that the SEIA IX crew would begin preparations for the SOLAR manoeuvre immediately. ICERN, along with governments of the world, have focused on reassuring the public that the planet is under no threat. The altered path of Viatrix is expected to pass safely by Earth, posing a spectacle not seen for millions of years. In fact, scientists are keen to take this opportunity to collect samples from the interstellar traveller, with Professor Heike Bartal joining us this morning.’
‘Chidi, you now have four minutes until your shift starts,’ came a voice from the speakers. ‘You really don’t want to be late, again.’
Chidi snapped away from the TV. ‘Thanks Rider,’ he said, fumbling with his shoelaces as he stumbled towards the door. ‘Turn everything off, will you?’
‘Will do,’ said the voice.
Slamming the door behind him, Chidi darted down the corridor towards the stairs. Why did he always do this to himself, Murray was just looking for a reason to demote him to desk duty — the boredom would be murder.
Climbing the steps three at a time, Chidi flung open the metal door that had a spray-painted four in the centre and checked his watch. He still had a minute; with any luck, he wouldn’t even be late.
Slowing down his pace, he made a left. Rows and rows of offices lined the corridor, each one with its own complete fireproof door and bulletproof glass. Most of the rooms already had people inside, all looking up with interest as he made his way past.
24. B, 25. B, 26. B, here we are. Chidi paused, just out of sight from room 27. B. Checking that his collar was straight and his shirt was tucked in, he glanced at his watch again. Ten seconds. Giving a thumbs up to the grey-haired man in the opposite office, who clearly found his appearance more interesting than his own work, Chidi stepped through the doorway.
‘Goddamn it you’re lucky Robinson, four more seconds and that would be it!’
‘Morning Lieutenant Murray,’ Chidi said cheerfully, taking in a quiet gulp of air. Blimey, he really needed to work on his fitness. In front of him were seven other people, all sitting on thin, uncomfortable fold-out seats. They all swivelled and stared at him, a few with disapproving looks.
Standing in front of the large screen on the far wall was a small woman with auburn hair, neatly tied into a ponytail. She wore her army uniform even though they were only required to wear their division’s polo shirt.
Lieutenant Murray glared at him. ‘Four seconds to spare is as good as late in my books,’ she said. ‘Fortunately for you, I’m a woman of my word, take a seat.’
Chidi quickly slid into the back row, next to Jason. He was one of the few people who hadn’t rolled their eyes at him.
‘Even for you that was close,’ Jason whispered.
‘What time did you get here then?’ Chidi asked under his breath. Jason was usually no better than he was.
‘I was classy,’ said Jason, who was watching Lieutenant Murray bring up the day’s agenda on the screen. ‘I got here with a minute to spare.’
‘Now that Robinson has graced us with his presence I can continue,’ Murray said, cutting off the conversation. She turned and swiped at the screen. ‘Today’s a big day so I need you all on your game. We’ve got Martin Parkinson from the Ministry of Defence arriving for inspections. I know you will all demonstrate the high standards we expect from this division.’
A hand rose from the seat in front of Chidi. ‘Why is Parkinson coming Lieutenant. Surely, they wouldn’t do the inspections?’
Murray quickly shrugged off the question. ‘It’s classified and of no concern of yours Griffiths.’
The woman lowered her hand.
‘On your pads, you’ll find your morning and afternoon duties. Any concerns please come and see me.’ With that Murray turned off the screen. That was one of the things Chidi couldn’t fault her on, she didn’t waste time with drawn-out speeches.
Reaching into his bag, he pulled out his line pad. Clicking the button on the top of the thin strip, the screen unravelled and flexed into its rigid shape. Quickly logging into the app, he couldn’t help but smile at his duty list. Jackpot!
‘What have you got?’ Jason asked, peering over Chidi’s pad. ‘I’m on rota B.’
Chidi raised his hand. ‘Looks like we’re stuck with each other all day then.’
Giving a not-so-subtle high five, Chidi looked back down at the duties. They were on perimeter and facility checks, which meant just patrolling the site, including outside.
‘What are you two grinning about?’
Chidi looked up to see the smiling face of Idaa Laghari. She was kneeling on the seat in front of him, her arms clasped around its back. Her hair, unlike Lieutenant Murray’s, was jet black and hanging loosely over her shoulders. Chidi had never seen her tie her hair up if she could help it. She was wearing black-rimmed glasses today that somehow made her stunning brown and amber irises even more vivid. Chidi remembered how taken aback he’d been by her eyes the first time they’d met. She’d wasted no time in bragging that she had heterochromia, a condition seen in only one percent of the population. Idaa had told him this before she’d even said her name.
‘What have you been landed with?’ he asked, already tucking his line pad into his pocket.
Idaa flicked her head towards the woman who had raised her hand earlier. ‘I’m on rota D with Grace.’ Her expression suggested she wasn’t too happy about the prospect.
‘Have fun with that,’ Jason said, grabbing his own bag and grinning. ‘I did rota A with her last week, I learnt all about the different ways I could get court-martialled if she had the inclination to tell on me.’
Idaa smirked. ‘Well, I’m an exemplary soldier, so I’m sure that was just for you.’
 Indian Space Research Organisation
 China National Space Administration
 European Space Agency
 The name of the Russian space agency
 National Aeronautics and Space Administration
 Sublimation Orbital Laser Asteroid Response.