A bad idea:
Take a country that needs to be powerful, in a world where it isn’t any more. Take a project that’s too expensive and technology that can’t ever work, then decide to send the whole thing into space. Give it an exciting name and tell the name to children, and say that stopping the whole thing would be the same as smashing their dreams. And make it so you absolutely never think about what you’ll do if there’s a disaster.
“It’s a disaster!” Frank screamed at Milosz within their tiny office. “He’ll be landing in thirty minutes, and we don’t have any visuals at all–“
“It’s not like he needs them,” snapped Milosz. “Doesn’t have to have all Britain’s eyes staring at him to look at some oil on an asteroid.”
“Get it working,” snapped Frank, because it wasn’t worth having the argument. Milosz knew well enough that there was no point sending a man off to asteroid in the first place; not for any scientific reason. But as they’d explained when he’d first got here, the whole mission was scientific in its way. It was just designed around something different from prospecting an asteroid for oil.
They’d told Milosz about the classified studies, the ones done after the moon landing. How the Cold War was almost over there and then, because Americans had seen one of their people reach out to the future and stick a big flag on the floor of it. It had made them believe in their victory in a way no politician really could, and so it had been worth all the hundreds of billions that they’d had to funnel in.
There had to be a person, and they had to see him land. A Brit, claiming new British soil. An Empire in space, though of course they’d never call it that. As a source of oil, the mission was useless. But as a source of hope, he’d been led to believe it was vital.Which was a good reason to panic, if they weren’t even able to film it. There were hundreds of people on hand to edit and filter the images once they came through, but for some unfathomable reason they arrived through a single point. It was Frank and Miloz’s role to take care of that one place where everything could fail, and it would be their names the Department would know about in the event that everything did.
Desperately, he scrolled through endless miles of code, deleting chunks in one place and hurriedly pasting functions in another. No one else on the project was talented enough to know what a mess his programs were, but if someone that good ever saw them he’d be in a great deal of trouble indeed.
He looked again at the edit he’d made before the accident. A semicolon deleted, in the most obvious and critical place. It was always something small like that, that would cause the enormous errors.
The picture on his screen flushed back to life, but something was wrong. For a dumb second, Milosz knew someone was playing a trick, but then there was no one who that someone could have been. He was the first and only person to see the image beamed back from space, and that meant his eyes had broken, or the stress had now broken his mind.
Or it might mean the thing he was seeing was real.
“It’s a Snapcode,” he said. “There’s a Snapcode on the asteroid.”
“Don’t really care,” said Frank, “as long as there’s a man on it soon.”
Milosz looked at him. “But this is the most astonishing discovery since–“ he struggled to think of anything “–since A very long time indeed! Since I was born! Since you were born! Since even before all of that!”
“I’m not that old,” said Frank. “I just don’t know what a Snapcode is. I don’t keep up with these coding terms you use.”
“If you were my age, you’d know exactly what it was.” Milosz fished out his phone and thrust the screen to his boss’s face. “It’s for Snapchat, see? Like what the kids are using. You want to add someone and you scan their Snapcode; then your phone gives a buzz and you’re friends. But they’re usually used by people or celebrities. Not objects in the middle of outer space.”
He twisted his screen towards his boss, who gaped at the thing it displayed. The Snapcode was pocked with tiny craters that had been left over the years, but it was still unmistakably something that someone had created. A rounded square covered in little dots, with the outline of a ghost in the middle. It was sitting there as if it was plain and normal, like it hadn’t even noticed how totally out of place it was.
“But that’s impossible,” said Frank.
“It is,” said Milosz, “and it’s also happening.”
“You’re telling me the asteroid has a social media presence?”
“It’s a one-shot mission. The thing’s moving past Earth at enormous speed. These are the first pictures we’d have got of it; we’re the first people who’d have known.”
“But that asteroid is ancient! Snapchat isn’t millions of years old! That’s why young people use it in the first place!”
“D’you think it works?” breathed Milosz, scared to even have the thought.
“Works!?” of course it doesn’t work! Frank paused. “Unless…”
“Unless it does,” said Milosz. His hand shook as he bought up his app to the screen…
…and a yellow square came up with a smiling cartoon of a woman’s face, with a very unusual star sign and the phrase DoctorSezStayAway! below.
Hesitatingly, Milosz checked what the face might have saved in her stories, but there was only one thing there. Just the woman in the picture shouting “Stay away!” into the screen, in an astronaut’s suit that seemed too advanced to be real.
“Nothing, then, Milosz said, handing the phone back to Frank. “Just some dead account, with someone dressing up.” He laughed. “Imagine being so proud of being a doctor that you’d put it in your username–“
He turned, but at the word doctor Frank had bolted from the room, the door swinging hopelessly and leaving him alone.
He looked back at the monitor and the image that it showed, aware that what was happening to him was impossible. But it was meaningless, too, and that made him strangely frustrated. If the Snapcode on the asteroid really hadn’t been a trick, than that meant it was a miracle– but a totally useless one, like making a statue wear trousers or changing the sea to bright pink. Why would the world do something like that, when he was feeling quite fine as a sceptic? Why would anyone perform a miracle when it didn’t even have a point?