37 Million Light Years

It arrived on the screen as a message of hope: “37 Million Light Years”

The number seemed so ridiculously large that Corporal-Sergeant Janet Witherspoon wondered how it had ever been cause for concern in the first place. How does an exploratory spacecraft fitted out with all the latest technology still somehow manage to mess up so badly? ‘Human error’, she thought to herself. Living in a futuristic society beyond anything most people could have begun to imagine even 60 years ago, the harsh reality was that human frailty still got to play a part.

Still, everyone else in the Terminus was in full-on celebration party mode. She should probably go and join them.

7 days ago, there had been the world-shattering announcement that there was a body from space hurtling towards the planet at break-neck speeds. Everyone had sprung into action from scientists  to NASA hierarchicals to the military, but no-one seemed to have any kind of theory or plan of action that provided much help. The most immediate move that could be made would be to send an unmanned probe directly into the path of the object to try and collect some more dependable data to give them some kind of idea just how much time they had.

Janet’s eyes paused on the screen once more as the flashing numbers seemed to be trying to get her attention. That nagging feeling that she had had the week before was back. 37 million? Why did the number seem so familiar to her?

The probe had launched successfully. Four days later it had been able to pinpoint within 0.3 of a parsec the expected trajectory of said body and since then had been making super sophisticated calculations which specialists at the station had been reviewing and trying to draw accurate conclusions from. Space debris, wind vectors, planetary gravitational pulls and of course the frequent showers of meteors in its path all meant that it was nearly impossible to know exactly when and where it would hit, if anywhere at all and so minute by minute, and hour by hour, the calculations continued to furiously be made by man and machine alike as they had to adjust and realign and recalculate once more.

If anything, the silver lining on this cloud had been the Dispersement. Even twenty-five years ago, an event like this would have meant the end of the human race. But with the advent of inhabitable space stations and locating three other planets able to sustain life meant that humankind was now more spread out than any single tragedy would ever be able to touch. A week ago the likelihood had been strong that one of the planets was within range and so the big question the calculations was predominantly trying to answer was ‘Who is in the line of fire?’

Janet shut her eyes involuntarily as a wave of nausea hit her and it was all she could do to keep her lunch down. Kepler-186f! What were the stats on that again? She flung her arms into the air directing holographic computer screens to do her bidding as she searched for the number she was seeking. Kepler 186f was the first planet they had discovered in the habitable zone of another star that had a similar radius to earth, and the second new planet the Dispersement had targetted.  Discovered by NASA’s Keplar spacecraft using the transit method [along with four additional planets ruled out because they orbited much too closely to the star] it had provided much of the initial research and prompting to move out at all. Where was the information she was looking for?

And suddenly there it was, in front of her, blinking on the screen. The party music in the background drowned out Janet’s agonised shriek as the familiar digits lined up in a way she was hoping she’d been mistaken about as she slumped back into her seat:

Planet: Kepler-186f

Governer: Sardun Ahlop [a popular leader from the Krouton quadrant, now in his third year]

Population: 37, 036, 219

37 million! The number was too close to be a lucky coincidence. How did it work again? The probe directed the information to the researchers and scientists who worked the data and then sent the results to Command Centre via voice recognition software and it got displayed across the main screen for all to see.

This was not human error after all. The message they had received which gave them the impression that all was well was not the message of hope they had received at all, but rather a pronouncement of a present tragedy that had already taken place. Bloody voice recognition software!

Numb and frozen in her seat, as the tears streamed down her face, Janet whispered the intended message to herself:

37 million lie! Tears…

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