“A Missed Diversion”
by R. S. Alexander
Derek Waterstone sat in a darkened isolation pod. He could have set the wallsplays to give him the feel of being in a panoramic glass room overlooking a city street scene, near the vaulted facility that his rented pod was in or some pleasant natural setting, but right now he preferred the dark; it suited his edgy mood. He couldn’t afford to calm down, not after weeks of hacking and tracking to get to this dangerous point.
Ding! The bell broke the silence and made him jolt in his chair, reflexively reaching into his jacket for the unregistered paralypistol that the staff of the establishment had confiscated when he’d arrived. Then he remembered that he’d ordered a drink. Exhaling with relief, Derek reached out to push a glowing red button that had lit up at the sound of the bell. His screen showed the progress as the outer barrier opened and then closed, followed by the results of scans for explosives, poisons, electronics, and mechanical devices, and then he heard a sound as the interior barrier opened. He reached for his glass of milk tea and sucked up a few boba balls. He liked boba. A drink that he could play with really took the edge off at times like this. In extreme circumstances he’d put some whiskey in there, sort of a White Russian with boba, but even this situation wasn’t that extreme. Come to think of it, nothing had been that extreme since the new girl in the lab had refused to date him.
A message displayed on his screen, with a header indicating that it was from A.MUNRA4.5. Time to catch a murderer:
“I’m online, from an isolation pod. Where are you?” Derek typed in reply.
Somewhere on or near earth. This conversation will be in real time.
That’s it? Derek thought to himself. He’d invested too much and come too far to not get some friggin’ answers!
“I want more than that. Where are you? I want to see your face.”
Will you give me access to all of the sensors in your pod and let me verify that you’re alone?
“Not on your life.”
I value privacy as much as you do. We’ll stick to text.
Derek was furious with his interlocutor’s attitude. “We are not on equal footing, mister! I know that you plotted the murder of Andrew Renfeyr!”
There was a pause.
????Wait, what? That’s what you think this is about???
Andrew Renfeyr wasn’t murdered, Derek. He died in a totally normal car accident. I had gone to a lot of trouble to get him that job and I was quite upset when he died unexpectedly.
“I know it was a murder. And we’re using screen names here! Don’t use my alleged real name unless you’re prepared to give yours!”
(But you’re silly to worry about eavesdroppers getting names when we’re using 1024 qubit encryption and you’re in an isolation pod.)
Anyway, why do you think Renfeyr was murdered?
Derek sighed. He couldn’t believe that A.MUNRA4.5 was playing these games. Derek wasn’t the one who’d needed a week of travel to make this conversation secure and synchronous. Well, if the guy wanted a game, he’d get it.
“Andrew had booked telescope time for observations of comet P/2022J1, you do concede that, yes?”
Yes, that is public record.
“And you do concede that he canceled that telescope time when he got his new job at the Kilometer Optical Telescope?”
Yes, his cancellation of the project and his new job are also public record.
“And then when I decided to book telescope time to observe P/2022J1 at perihelion you sent Layla to seduce me.”
There was a pause. Derek knew that his adversary was uncomfortable. He took a celebratory slurp of the iced milk tea.
Yes, Layla worked for me. But you already knew that she was hired to monitor you, because you found me through her financial paper trail.
(You might be farther on your thesis if you spent more time on data analysis and less time hacking. Just saying.)
“How I spend my free time is none of your business!”
Considering how much time you spent having sex with a contractor in my employ I’d say that your free time habits are quite literally my business.
But let’s keep this professional. You have established that people who take an interest in this comet wind up diverted, one of those diversions involves Andrew Renfeyr taking a new job and moving, and from that you conclude that I had Renfeyr killed when he arrived in Chile. I have to concede that that could look like a tempting interpretation of events, but insurance investigators found no evidence of tampering in his vehicle–
“Ah-hah!” Derek took another celebratory slurp as he typed. “Why were you looking at accident reports, if not to see if your trail was well covered?”
Because, TrampireHunter, I’m not dumb. If you could be suspicious of his death then so could other people, and I had to find out if I was in danger of false accusations.
We’re not going to persuade each other here, and if I were a murderer it’s not like I’d confess in a chat that might be recorded. So let’s move on.
I assume that you know why I’m so interested in keeping a lid on this comet’s perihelion data?
“Of course I do! You tried to keep me from learning about Erra. That’s why you had Layla install the malware, so I wouldn’t see the updated list of newly discovered dwarf planets.”
There was no pause this time.
Yes. Erra is the key to everything.
“Did you really think you could keep me from seeing a public database forever? From seeing a lurking new planet?”
I had to try. You understand what this means for Mars?
“I do! You want to kill everyone on Mars!”
“P/2022J1 is going to pass near Erra on its next trip through the outer solar system, yes?”
Yes, it will. And the gravitational deflection of Erra will be just enough to send it straight toward Mars–
“And you are planning to spend the next several decades doing whatever it takes to keep people from finding out, and when it finally happens the rocky comet will wipe out the colonies!”
No, what will happen is–
“Doesn’t matter! I’ve already put an end to your plot! All of my data on its trajectory was sent to the military before I got anywhere near this isolation pod. Even if you kill me you’ve already failed. They’ll probably launch interceptors from Venusian orbit within days.”
You idiot. You’ve ruined everything.
There was no further response. Derek sprung up and danced with glee. He’d done it! He’d stopped this genocidaire. He slurped the last bits of boba up his straw and chewed the gummy little balls with satisfaction, continuing his giddy dance.
Eventually, after the urge to victory dance had passed, Derek got impatient. Unexpectedly, A.MUNRA4.5 had not disconnected but was not typing anything.
“Hello? You still there? Anything to say?” Derek queried.
Check Wikipedia, idiot. Look at the newest updates in the entry for P/2022J1. It links to a repository that’s just gone live in the Interplanetary Astronomical Union’s Datashare server.
Confused, Derek obediently opened up the Wikipedia page. “Crap…” was all that he could think.
See that? I was going to give you a cut of it, since you had put most of the pieces together and could have sold the info, but now I’m out billions of pounds.
Derek’s heart raced.
“It’s nearly pure ammonia. But how did you know?”
We data-mined every available observation from its handful of forays into the inner solar system in the last two centuries. The spectral data’s sparse because there’s way less outgassing than other comets. There’s too much rock on the surface, and what outgassing there is has a lot of water and methane mixed with the ammonia, but the inner core is nearly pure ammonia.
“How…how could you know that?”
I told you, data mining. We’ve pieced together every single radar reading, every single spectrum, however noisy, however faint, that was ever obtained from this comet. We did a Bayesian meta-analysis. Orbital shifts after propulsive outgassing let us infer mass and density. The only model that makes any sense is nearly pure ammonia.
Derek’s mouth went dry and his face went red. He felt like he’d shrunk while his pod had grown and started to spin. But the person on the other end just kept typing.
Oh, and we think that P/2022J1 is part of a larger population of ammonia comets. There’s more out there to be found. Now the whole world is on the trail of it.
“So why didn’t you just claim it? Why go to great lengths to divert everyone off the trail when you could just land a probe for sample retrieval and claim ownership rights?”
We’re a just a mid-sized outfit in the Belt. We can’t send probes to the inner solar system. We wanted to get perihelion data, confirm our estimates, then do sample retrieval on its return trip through the Belt.
“You could partner with a gigacorp.”
Partner? You mean sell them data? We’d get 10% of the bounty, and that’s IF their lawyers didn’t screw us. We wanted full ownership.
Well, it’s public now. The gigacorps will race to send probes within hours, and have full ownership rights before it even reaches perihelion. One of them will get the contract to divert the comet so it reaches Mars on a grazing trajectory and vaporizes in the atmosphere.
Derek did a quick calculation. His hands were shaking when he was done.
“That’s as much nitrogen as Mars would get in a local year of regular bombardment. The bounty will be—“
Billions. See why we tried to keep people off the trail?
“So you’re not… you’re not trying to destroy Mars. But why release the data at this point? What’s in it for you?”
No money, thanks to you. But I have family on Mars. I care about their atmosphere.
There was a pause.
And maybe this data dump is a good demo for our data-mining analytics.
“What happens to me?”
You go write your thesis and leave me alone.
Then A.MUNRA4.5 signed off. Derek just stared at his feet for a long while, his eyes watering and hands still shaking. Eventually, he mustered the energy to turn off the transmission. Then he booked another hour of pod time and ordered a White Russian with boba.
R. S. Alexander is the pen name of a physics professor who doesn’t spend much time on mysterious Kuiper Belt Objects or interplanetary conspiracies but is prone to his own bizarre speculations. This is his first story published in a paying venue.