"Mission Control, this is Mars One, do you copy?"
"Mars One, this is Mission Control. Please stand by for the Director." She recognized the voice as Charlie Ranker, a veteran on the late-night shift. They'd talked many times when she manned the ISS seven years ago.
"Mars One, Chalmers here. How are you doing up there?"
Julia cleared her throat and took a deep breath. "I'm fine. All systems behaving normally."
"I've gotten some help from the NSA. We're going to send you some new firmware over the data link. We found some anomalies in what you're running now. It's probably nothing, but--"
"Better safe than sorry," Julia nodded, "I know."
"Just to be safe, I need you to take out that envelope I handed you before you left. Open it. Read the first set of instructions and follow them. I'll be waiting." The comm display went dead.
She unzipped her coverall and pulled out the envelope. Carefully ripping it open to avoid loose paper floating around the cockpit, she slid the letter out and unfolded it. It contained instructions for changing the encryption code on the voice and data communication system. Chalmers said they'd do it again when she reached Mimas, and again on the approach to Earth. She changed the codes, folded the letter, and slipped it back into the envelope.
She keyed the transmitter again. The comm display lit up with Chalmers' face.
"Good, the code we're using now is known only to me and the tech I trusted to create it. It's unlikely the Russians, Chinese, or anyone else can hear us now. I'm transmitting you a hash code for the firmware we're sending up. If the hash code on the firmware you get doesn't match this code exactly, you pull the data antenna cable, change to the next code, and call me back. Got it?"
"Yes, sir. I see the computer pulling in the file now. How long is this going to take?"
"The engineers tell me it'll be about two hours before the file makes it up there. It's a complete rewrite of the firmware for the thrust system. The NSA found back doors in it that look like a variation of some Chinese code they've seen before. The new stuff is clean."
Julia shivered. Her paranoid fantasy of another country hijacking the command module and crashing it inside their borders might not have been so far off the mark. If the Chinese managed to get something into one of the most sensitive control systems in Mars One, who knew what else they might have managed? And what about the Russians? Or anyone else for that matter, like some extremist religious group? She'd flown many missions for NASA, and occasionally had a bout of nerves when something didn't go quite right, but this was all out fear.
"Julia? Did you get that?"
She shook her head and looked at the screen. "No, sorry. Just feeling sorry for myself."
"Understandable. I'm sorry, too. The FBI and NSA are all over the facility, trying to figure out how that code got in the system. We're hoping we can find out who did it, so we can learn more."
"You mean, like what else they might have sabotaged?"
He nodded, and frowned. "Exactly. We'll get the bastard. You're the best we've got, Commander. NASA can't afford to lose you. We can't lose the command module, either. It'd set the Mars project back about a year."
"Haven't we already set it back?"
"Yes, but not as much as you'd think. If we can get you both back safely to the platform, we can refit the module in a couple of months and certify you to get right back on board... tested module, tested pilot. Best chance of mission success."
She hadn't dared dream that Chalmers would still let her do the Mars mission after sending her on this one. The smile couldn't be suppressed.
"I knew you'd be happy to hear that, Commander. I didn't send you on this trip as a punishment. I sent you because we were up against a wall and I needed the best pilot I've got. That's you."
"Thanks. Now, can you tell me some more about this mission?"
"Let me sit down." The camera moved a bit as Chalmers found his way to a chair and readjusted it.
"We don't know a lot. We know this thing, whatever it is, is metallic. The signals we got from the probe we crashed near it tell us that much. They also tell us its dimensions are too perfect for it not to have been machined somewhere. Whether that's here on Earth, and we're sending you on a wild goose chase, or somewhere else, we just don't know. There was a very short pulse of radio energy picked up on the radiation sensors, but it was faint and fast. It barely registered. This means it's probably got some kind of technology in it. No idea what. Hell, the damned thing might even be some kind of bomb or torpedo. Look at it." The screen flashed the image of the object again.
Julia studied it carefully. The image was fuzzy, which was no surprise given that it was taken by a camera on a space probe being crashed into the surface of Mimas. The object was rounded at the top, roughly cylindrical in shape, fatter in the middle, narrower at the bottom. The bottom looked to be perfectly flat. There appeared to be four rings carved into it just below the domed top - or maybe they were some kind of decoration. It was hard to tell. Julia couldn't help but think the thing looked something like a high-tech bullet or torpedo. This did nothing to calm her thoughts.
"So, what if this thing actually isa bomb or torpedo of some kind. Do you really want me hacking it out of the ice, hauling it onto the ship, and dragging it back home. What if it's some kind of alien nuke, and wipes out half the eastern seaboard? Or worse?"
He sighed. "We've been debating that with the Oval Office since we told them we found it. The President isn't too keen to have his administration known as the one that brought alien destruction to Earth. To be honest, we haven't figured out what's going to happen once you get it back to the orbital platform. It might have to stay there until we know what it is and what to do with it."
"And me? Do I have to babysit it?"
"Not exactly, but if the thing is some kind of radioactive or biological weapon, we can't let you come back down to Earth. We'll need to send up some scientists and doctors to check you, and the object, out when you arrive. If you get the all-clear, you come home immediately."
"Great..." She began to see visions of months in space, dying of some alien radiation sickness or plague.
"It's probably not a bomb, you know."
She thought some more, looked at the screen, and nodded. "Yeah, 'cause it doesn't look like one."
They discussed the approach, landing, and retrieval of the object. They walked through how she would extract it from the ice, get it aboard the craft, lift off, and return home.
Julia also told Chalmers all of her ideas on just how the Chinese or Russians might try to sabotage the mission. Chalmers said his people had considered all of those, and were making contingency plans around them. They also had a few more she hadn't thought of, and were deciding what could be done about those, too. Julia wanted to ask him what they'd come up with, but realized that she was scared enough as it was. Better to imagine them as far-off remote possibilities than to know the truth, especially if it was something like them poisoning her air or water supply. Oh God, I hadn't thought of that...
"Looks like the firmware's been transmitted. Please check the hash code against what I sent you earlier, and then read it back to me. Let's make damned sure the file is intact, Commander."
Julia verified the letters and numbers of the hash code, and they seemed to match. She checked them a second time before reading the codes from the file aloud to Chalmers.
"Yeah, that's what we sent you. Here's how to apply it." They walked through the checklist for applying the firmware update, with Julia echoing back each step before doing it, and repeating it again after it was finished.
"I'm going now. The engineers are going to reboot the main computer. You'll lose communication and some other functions for a few minutes while the computer runs a POST and boots up. Charlie will go through the diagnostics with you when it's up. We'll talk again when you're near Mimas, on the next encryption codes."
"Understood, Director. Thanks for everything."
"You're welcome, Julia. Talk to you tomorrow."
"Commander, it's Charlie. We're ready to reboot your computers. You OK with that?"
"Not really, Charlie. But the sooner we get the Chinese code out of them the happier I'll be."
Julia watched as the comm display went black, along with almost all the other lights and displays in the cockpit. The whole thing seemed to take an incredibly long time. Shouldn't something be flickering or beeping... or something by now? It wasn't.