Errol Haygue had the misfortune of being the inaugural chief of the USA’s Space Exploration Council (SEC), the successor to the recently disbanded NASA. He was the United States’ ‘go-to guy’ for all things space at a time when its budgets weren’t so much being cut or slashed, as totally annihilated.
A veteran of three space shuttle missions in the Nineties, he was comfortably his nation’s most experienced space expert, yet it had been over a decade since he’d left the Earth’s atmosphere. ‘Such a fate awaits men who find that age, experience and a desire for a bigger salary force them into soul-destroying managerial posts,’ he reasoned to his wife in a moment of reflection back at his New England ranch.
He had no option but the desk job by the time the opportunity to take on one arose with the sudden demise of his predecessor, who had held the role of NASA Chief for twenty-one years, during which he’d overseen the phasing out of the shuttles, the colonisation of Mars by ten thousand ‘specially selected’ individuals and families, and the near total collapse of government funding for anything space related.
By the time Haygue settled into the power-exuding leather seat of office, NASA was no more and news of people emigrating to Mars was old news. The ships they travelled in were well designed and several incident and disaster free take-offs, journeys and landings in a row sent hacks who were waiting for front page stealing explosions and bodycounts scurrying elsewhere.
Sensing that loss of interest would soon yield a similar result when it came to the scant funding that SEC received, Haygue suggested staging a crash or a death on board a flight to Mars to re-ignite public interest. It was then that he realised despite it saying ‘Chief’ on his office door and the long, triangular plaque on his wooden desk, there were bigger, more powerful chiefs who could and would veto his every decision. They didn’t work in the same building, or even the same city, but they were out there somewhere, ready to intervene and delay and question and procrastinate. And they certainly weren’t thinking that a staged crash or disaster was in the public interest.
They were more concerned with the public interest that had been generated by Onamoto’s picture and the sheer number of blogs and comments about it. Haygue knew it was only a matter of time before his superiors ordered him to host a press conference to assassinate Onamoto’s character, ridicule his pictures and belittle those who believed in the existence of an asteroid made of diamond.
All standing room at the briefing was taken within minutes of the seats going, seats which Haygue had ensured were the most uncomfortable in the building.
He strode to his pedestal, flanked by attractive juniors, and framed on Remnant’s outdated square screen television by a pictorial rendition of the White House, the SEC logo, an important-looking but ultimately meaningless coat of arms and a plush flag of the United States with extra shiny red stripes.
During his career, Haygue had developed an oratorical style specifically designed to heighten boredom. He deliberately droned, especially when revealing important information that the laws of the land required him to. There were no peaks in his tone, no patterns to his speech, merely relentless troughs. Many hacks had grown tired of his lack of personality, turning their attention to other stories and, in several cases, other careers. Some who decided to remain journalists took to making up stories and fabricating leads in order to avoid being assigned to a Haygue briefing. As a result, Haygue had virtually slipped off the radar.
“Ladies and gentleman, I will keep this brief,” he droned, and many of the gathered journalists immediately recalled why they had always given these ‘occasions’ a wide berth. “As we all know, rumours have been circulating regarding the nature of these pictures.”
The shot of the bright white light that had made Onamoto a household name brought forth gasps from the assembled press. Haygue shook his head at their over-reaction.
“This is a shot taken from the Prospector mission to Jupiter,” he said, turning to the screen behind him. “It is a shot taken by a malfunctioning camera. As is this, this and this.” He toggled through three more almost identical pictures of a bright white light, then turned back to face the journalists, inadvertently triggering a storm of flash photography.
An impatient Haygue squinted as journalists tried to intervene with questions, only to be shushed down and glared at by the assembled security.
“It’s just an over-exposed shot. Nothing more, nothing less. So let’s stop all this talk of diamonds and asteroids.”
“So what do you say to the scientists who say that there’s a hundred per cent chance of there being an asteroid made of diamond in the belt?” asked a voice from the throng.
“If there is such a thing, no one’s found it yet, but we’ll keep our eyes open,” said Haygue, looking at someone else. He could see from the serious expressions on the gathered faces that they’d all been briefed to keep this story alive.
“The camera that took the shots, that’s an expensive bit of kit to be malfunctioning, don’t you think?” Haygue recognised the voice as belonging to John Stock, the scourge of the latter ten years of his career. He was one of the few to bother turning up to all of his briefings, mostly to heckle and harass.
Stock was an annoyingly boyish man who was at least a decade older than he looked. The writer of a spaceblog that Haygue could never remember the name of, (but he had Googled it once and was left unimpressed), Stock looked younger and younger every time Haygue saw him, and today was no exception.
“A thorough investigation is underway, as you might expect, Stock. So I don’t have any hard and fast reasons why that camera malfunctioned.” Haygue said, watching Stock type something on his iPad.
“Remind me again of the Prospector’s mission,” was Stock’s follow-up question.
“Prospector is on a very important mission to help develop mankind’s understanding of the solar system’s most powerful planet,” said Haygue.
“Why then does Onamoto’s most recent post, published as recently as a half hour ago, say that there is a Prospector II? With astronauts onboard? In the asteroid belt as we speak?”
There was uproar in the briefing room, even from the security guards. Haygue glared at Stock who was loving being the centre of attention. “Astronauts on a mission to test the purity of the diamond asteroid,” Stock shouted.
“There’s no truth whatsoever in these rumours,” Haygue yelled. “No truth in any of that crap Onamoto puts on his site. It’s all conjecture. There is no Prospector II.”
The buzz in the room prevailed. Another voice brought calmness.
“So what’s the latest with the first Prospector?”
“The only Prospector,” Haygue corrected him.
“We expecting any more film back?”
“The Prospector will continue to send back pictures of Jupiter, for the next nine months.”
“I look forward to seeing them,” said Stock, not totally ingenuinely, although some journalists laughed. “You said before that these pictures of the white light are several months old. Why were they not released sooner?”
“Who’d be interested? Who’d publish them? Who wants to see a picture taken by a malfunctioning camera? When was the last time any of you attended a briefing of mine, apart from you, Stock? I can assure you there is nothing in this. No diamond asteroid for you to worry about.”
“Hey, it wouldn’t worry me any,” said Stock. “But I know a few people who’d be interested in checking out if there was any truth in the rumour. A few millionaires wanting to build spaceships to go take a look.”
“Good luck to them, but they’re wasting their time. And you’re wasting mine.” Haygue looked set to leave.
“So you can categorically state that no SEC mission is underway to the asteroid belt?” asked a female journalist from one of the financial papers.
“We’re in a double dip recession, as you’ll know better than me. There aren’t the funds hanging around for us to launch a hunt for a diamond, should there be such a thing, which we don’t believe there is.”
“So you’d be happy for anyone with a ship to go on up and check that out for themselves?”
“Be my guest. OK, thanks everyone. This one’s over.” Haygue gathered his papers and looked up to see Stock addressing the cameras and the journalists.
“I don’t think this is over. I think anyone who believes in this rumour, who believes there’s something up there owes it to themselves to go check it out. Don’t let anyone talk you out of it.”
“I think everyone gets the picture,” Haygue raged. “This one’s definitely over.”
It was a line that brought forth many questions asked at the same time and same high volume by equally desperate journalists.
Haygue ignored them all and walked out of the room with far less confidence than he’d had when entering it, knowing a summons to meet the powers that be would already be waiting in his inbox.