The Pro-2004 was a heavy bit of kit but it was supposed to be the best. That steel outer casing, the guy at Tandy had said, would reduce interference and get the best signal ever! Not only that, but it also had 300 channels which made it far better than the 20 channel scanner that Libby used up to then. It wasn’t cheap, but working two jobs (one after college and one every Saturday night at a local Chinese restaurant) meant that Libby was able to afford it, although a bit of birthday money and a pocket money advance did help.
Once she got the scanner home that Friday evening Libby decided to set it up in the back of her dad’s garage. It was a long wide garage that housed a small corner which served as Libby’s radio laboratory. Rows of Dexion shelving created a snug hideaway where she could keep her electronic gear. An old Commodore Vic 20 gathered dust alongside various bits and pieces that had been salvaged from old radios or bought from Tandy. Other 16-year-old girls would usually be shopping at Dorothy Perkins, Top Shop, or Chelsea Girl but Libby was a regular visitor to the electronic shop, indulging in her hobby of amateur radio having been caught up by the CB craze some years earlier. She also dreamed of building a computer like “Ralf” from the TV show Whiz Kids but that would require more funds. Lots more! Instead, she programmed games in Basic and tinkered with her radios but not today. Today all that would change. Today she had the Pro-2004 scanner and she was buzzing with excitement because later that night she was hoping to listen to a very special broadcast.
At nine o’clock that evening the Artemis rocket was being launched to send a deep space probe on a search for new planets. What made it really exciting was that the mission had been developed by the local PLANUS research laboratory a few miles away and they were controlling the launch. Libby hoped that she would be able to listen in on the launch on her new scanner and worked feverishly to get it online, pausing briefly for dinner.
Just before launch time Libby was sat in her lab, headphones on and searching the many channels to find the space agency frequency. The launch would take place from the Guiana Space Centre in South America but would be controlled from PLANUS itself it should be easy to listen in on. It wasn’t long before Libby had found what she was looking for and she turned up the volume.
“PLANUS control to ELA, confirm Go for auto-sequence start.” The voice was clear, the scanner was doing its job and doing it well.
“Confirmed: Go for auto-sequence start. Artemis onboard has primary control for the launcher’s critical functions.”
“T minus fifteen seconds…” Libby listened to the countdown, holding her breath. This was better than she hoped for.
“Main engine start.”
“Go for main engine start. Five… four… three… two… one… zero!”
“T-zero. Ignition and… and lift off. Lift off and Artemis sets off on its mission for PLANUS.”
Libby clapped her hands with excitement. It actually felt as if she was there in the control room.
“ELA to PLANUS, you are now controlling.”
“Roger, controlling. Engines at 100%. Travelling at 700 mph.”
“Engine running at full throttle and all systems performing well. Altitude now 68,000 feet; Artemis is at 1,000 mph.”
Suddenly there was a burst of static and then total silence. Libby looked at the scanner, a knot of fear gripping her insides as she thought, in panic, that her scanner has stopped working. She changed frequency and breathed a huge sigh of relief as she picked up the chatter of a local taxi firm and then a police transmission about an intruder somewhere. Libby tuned back to the launch frequency but it was dead. Somehow the frequency had been lost and, after ten more minutes of trying to find it, Libby decided to call it a night. Her fingers reached out to switch the scanner off when a faint voice came over the air.
“Capsule to PLANUS, message.” A man’s voice, faint and echoey. Libby turned the volume up a notch and listened hard.
“This is PLANUS, send your message.”
“PLANUS, I have a system malfunction.” The voice was calm, but had a slight edge to it.
“Roger that Capsule. State the nature of the malfunction.”
Libby stared at the scanner. Artemis was supposed to be an unmanned mission but it sounded like there was an astronaut on board.
“Final separation…”, a buzz of static and a high pitched squeal caused Libby to recoil, her face screwed up, as she pulled the headphones away from her ears. “…orbit good though.”
What was the middle part of the message? Libby listened on.
“Roger Capsule. We’ve got Recovery looking at it with Flight. Give us five.”
“Will do PLANUS. Many thanks.”
Libby listened but there was nothing more. The transmissions had been shut down. What was going on? Why had everyone said Artemis was unmanned when clearly it wasn’t? Something wasn’t right.
“Well that’s buggered it up!” the bald-headed man rubbed his face and looked at the bank of monitors in front of him. His laminated badge clipped to his shirt pocket said that he was called Simon Simpson and he was the Launch Director. He looked to the younger man next to him, Geoff Hill. Geoff was the Recovery Director and was ashen white. Simon asked for the room to be cleared so that only he and Geoff remained.
“Can we get him back? Tell me the truth.” Simon asked.
“No. Not a chance.” Geoff replied, “If the final separation had taken place then maybe I could redirect the boosters to make a reentry but with the stage still attached then it would be certain death when he reentered the atmosphere.”
“Okay,” Simon sighed long and loud, “I’ll talk to the Boss. Have everyone meeting in the conference room in one hour.”
“Radio silence from now on. We’ve said too much over the air. He’s not supposed to even be up there. And lock the room when you leave. No one comes in again.”
It had been over thirty minutes and there had been no transmissions. Libby kept the headphones on, listening. And then her patience was rewarded.
“Capsule to PLANUS, message.”
Thirty seconds passed.
“Capsule to PLANUS, nothing heard.”
“Capsule to PLANUS, I don’t know if you’re getting me. Can you give me an update?”
Libby knew that there was something wrong, very wrong. The guy in the capsule shouldn’t be being ignored like this. But what could she do? Then she saw her old CB radio on one of the shelves beside her.
Simon came out of the Boss’s office feeling sick. He walked back to the control room and let himself in. The room was empty and quiet. Simon switched off the monitors as he walked past, putting off the inevitable. He stopped at the Flight Control desk and looked at the array of switches in front of him. As Launch Director he knew what every single one of them did, and he knew what he had to do. He reached out and threw the required switches.
“Capsule to PLANUS! Something bad just happened! The port aft booster just fired. I… I think I’ve broken orbit!” The voice was clearly panicked and Libby jumped in fright, dropping the soldering iron onto the floor narrowly missing her foot. She carefully picked the iron up and carried on working on the innards of her radio set whilst simultaneously listening to the scanner.
The mood in the conference room was tense. Simon knew everyone would be looking at him for answers but he had none. Just a message that he had been given by the Boss. Sweat patches darkened his shirt but he chose not to hide them under his jacket. He wanted to let his team know that he was under pressure, duress even, to say what he was going to say. He wiped his sweaty palms down the thighs of his polyester trousers and stood up.
“Ahem… Well, as you know…” he stalled. “The er… the Artemis launch went well but suffered a err… a setback when it reached orbit. It, er… it turns out that…” the big lie, “well, I mean, it turns out that the er… the capsule was breached. Yes, it was breached and er… it er… decompressed. Totally. I’m afraid… I’m sorry, the capsule was lost. There was nothing any of us could have done.”
Simon looked around the room. Faces of horror and disbelief, some of accusation. The door behind him swung open and the Boss walked in and addressed everyone. Afterwards, no one questioned what Simon had said.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” Libby heard the distress call through her headphones and it frightened her. But she was ready. She checked the wires leading between her CB radio and the scanner and then took hold of the CB microphone. She thumbed the transmit switch and spoke:
“Hello Capsule, I read you.”
“What? Who is this? Is that PLANUS control?” Libby felt a surge of excitement. It had worked.
“No,” she replied, “I’m not PLANUS control. My name’s Libby. I live near PLANUS, in Badgers Crossing.”
“How the hell are you talking to me?” the astronaut screamed, “I need help! Get off this frequency!”
Libby looked at the microphone. How could she help? Was there anything she could do?
“I might be able to help…” Libby offered.
“I thought I said… Look, Kid, get off the air! I’m in trouble and you’re not helping!” The astronaut began another round of Mayday calls and Libby felt helpless. She sat for a few moments and then heard her dad calling out to her, wishing her goodnight. Her fingertips touched the off switch, paused, and then flicked the set off.
At three in the morning, Libby woke. She had barely slept, thinking about the astronaut trapped in the capsule. She got up, pulled on her dressing gown and padded out to the garage. She sat down in front of her scanner and CB radio and switched both on and adjusted her headphones. She listened.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” the voice cried out, but fainter. The signal was diminishing, meaning that the capsule had moved further away. Libby paused before pressing the talk button, unsure of what to say.
“Hello Capsule, this is Libby.”
“PLANUS? Is that you?”
“No, it’s Libby again.”
“Damn you kid! I told you to get off this frequency!”
“I think I can help you!” Libby offered and then explained her plan.
It was close to four in the morning when Libby wheeled her bicycle out of the garage and hopped onto the seat. She left the scanner and CB switched on just in case she lost the frequency. Libby knew where the PLANUS laboratory was located and she pedalled hard towards Penlock Forest. It took half an hour for her to reach the gates. The laboratory had been built in an old mansion house but she didn’t manage to get anywhere near it as a large, imposing fence surrounded the premises. At the foot of the driveway to the laboratory were a large gate and a small guardhouse. She brought her bike up to the gatehouse and stopped. Before she could lean it up against the fence a security guard came out of the gatehouse and asked her what was going on.
“I need to speak to someone from the space program. It’s really important!” Libby said anxiously, “The spaceman in the capsule is in trouble!”
The guard looked at her, unsure of what she was talking about. He knew about the space launch but what was all this about a spaceman in a capsule? He told her to wait and went into his office. He picked up the telephone, consulted a list of numbers until he found the one he wanted and then began to dial. After a brief conversation, he put the phone down and went out to speak to Libby.
“Someone will be along in a moment to speak to you.”
Simon put the phone down and swore loudly. How could this be? He picked up the phone again and rang the Boss. The conversation was short and to the point, he had to find out what this girl knew, how she knew it, and then sort it out. Simon pulled on his jacket and walked out to the car park. His car, a series 3 Jaguar XJ6 in silver, was parked in a reserved spot. He got in, started it up and drove out to the gatehouse.
Libby told Simon everything she could, her scanner, listening to the launch, the distress calls. She even explained, proudly, how she had rigged a way to speak to the astronaut.
“Thank you,” Simon said, “You’ve been very helpful. And does anyone else know about this?”
“No,” replied Libby, “I thought it best to let you know straight away.”
Simon smiled at her and then said: “That was a good idea. I have to say, I’m very impressed by what you’ve done. We could use more people like you here at PLANUS. Why don’t you go home and let the astronaut know that you’ve told us and we’re doing everything we can to help him? We’ll be in touch later today. With him and you. Is that okay?”
Libby nodded and left the gatehouse and got back on her bicycle and started to head off back home. Simon felt a small trickle of sweat run down his spine as he walked back to his car and started the engine.
As Libby cycled along the road that sliced through Penlock Forest on her way back to Badgers Crossing she was excited. She couldn’t wait to speak to the astronaut again and tell him everything was going to be okay. She was pedalling hard and fast and the wind roared in her ears. She didn’t hear the engine of the silver Jaguar XJ6 until it was too late.
The Boss had promised the guard who had first spoken to Libby a new role as Head of Security in return for him forgetting everything about the girl and her tale about the astronaut. In addition, Simon’s car would be replaced for a newer model. PLANUS would dispose of the old car, its front end damage and shattered windscreen were “uneconomical to repair”. Simon would also receive a bonus in his next wage for his “commitment to the fledgeling space program”. The Boss knew that everyone had a price and silence could be bought. Business would soon be back to normal.
And in a dusty corner of a garage, amongst rows of Dexion shelving, a voice could be heard coming from a set of headphones, getting ever fainter as they moved further and further into outer space.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”
And eventually, it went dead.