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by sharok rillk

Chapter Two : Proof

- Earth : Strategic Air Command / Space Defense HQ -

General Anton Dwight McWinter was an old geezer. He had made a brilliant, yet controversial career, and had obtained a well-deserved retirement. He was, first and foremost, a soldier, therefor he went by the book whenever that was the sensible thing to do. His detractors would argue that it is his interpretation of sensible that had to be reviewed. To that, the general typically answered that "a spotless career is a dull one". And General McWinter was anything but dull.

Anton Dwight McWinter began life as a son of a military officer. His mother died in an accident when he was five years old. He went to military school at age six. He had breathed the uniform and ate the mess hall tripe for what seemed to him to be forever. His scholarship was an early demonstration of his future career : while preparing for his graduation as Major of his West Point promotion, he had been sacked for disorderly conduct. The week before prom night, he recieved a call from his sister Shaana who was waiting for him at the entrance, and upon arriving at the gate, had observed that she was being molested by a group of unruly youths. Not only did he personally kick their collective asses, but he then proceeded to take on the guard on the basis that said guard should have protected Shaana by letting her inside the compound.

At the trial two days later, the guard deposed a written testamony (he couldn't talk, his jaw was fractured) specifying that there were no provisions in the rulebook for allowing unauthorized personnel on military grounds under any circumstances. McWinter's response to that was a brilliant and withering assault on the rulebook with all the might of his personal interpretation of the moral obligation that the military had to protect the citizens at all costs. He might have won the case on that basis, had he not also assaulted the two MPs that had finally responded to the distress calls of the guard on duty. For that, he was stripped of his Prom Major status, and had to graduate in second position.

There is a saying, among the more seasoned military administrators, that the Corps never forgets anything. If so, it must be said that Anton D. McWinter has always worn his scars with pride. Despite the early setback in his career, he was quickly entrusted with some serious missions in which his success brought him a public favor that was to never falter afterwards (the daring moon raid to liberate Iraki diplomats from Syrian terrorists was the event that kicked his reputation into the stratosphere).

Thus, General McWinter had an impressive number of very bright points in his career history, along with public faith in his word. Why such a man had never run for the most public office of all was a mystery to the many who would have voted him in office in an instant. But those who knew the man knew also that Anton McWinter was faithful to the old Greek saying : Know Thyself. And McWinter knew full well that he did not have the patience to listen to hours of bullshit while sipping tea, nor could he keep himself from calling a dog a dog. He had a very small talent for diplomacy, and made no effort to hide it. He was also fascinated with the sheer size of the Universe, and when the political situation had created the Space Threat Detection Center, he had applied for its direction as a civilian administrator.

His application was accepted within a week, and he had been reconducted in that function twice already. He was now a seventy-one-year-old man, and there wasn't a soldier in the base who would dare take him on in the morning exercises. Despite the fact that he no longer wore an official uniform, he was always dressed in impeccably creased navy blue pants and white shirt with a black tie. His rank was his name, nobody even thought of calling him Mr. McWinter. The few close friends he still had called him Dwight.

One of those friends was Senator Mike Brennard, a youngster by McWinter's standards, only sixty-three. Senator Brennard had been a Lieutenant under his command in various overseas operations, and McWinter had had several occasions to witness the cool-headed Lieutenant in action. The fact that Brennard was Chief Defense Advisor to the White House was a good thing at the moment, the General was sure. Something fishy was going on in the mechanical bowels of ThreatNet, and the General appreciated the fact that he would be able to give the skinny to Brennard without beating around the bush. That Brennard was now the General's hierarchical superior did not faze the latter at all : it was all part of the grand game of life.

No, the only worry the General had was that mass business detected by GravNet. Since his retirement, the General had been taking up space science as a hobby. His knowledge of the subject would have surprised quite a few scientists, if they had a chance to talk with him. Thus, the General knew quite well that billions of tons, metric or otherwise, did not just "appear" magically. He also knew perfectly well what GravNet's track record was, and, in yesterday's conversation with Commander Thomson, he had agreed that if there had been an asteroid, they could very well not have seen it. The General filed that theory in his vast memory, and let it rest, confident that something would come up along that line.

It was therefor with some surprise that the General was confronted with the orderly the following morning (after his thirty-minute workout and shower), saying that the General had a priority request for return call from ThreatNet Headquarters. He increased his pace in direction of his office, followed by the orderly, shortening his morning greeting round to whoever he met on the way.

In his office, the General punched the speeddial and picked up the handset. The phone rang once and Thomson answered, in what seemed to the General to be a rather sleepy voice.

"What's up, Commander ?" asked the General, his tone of voice introducing himself.

"Ahh, General, I believe we have a situation here." said Chief Thomson, his tone not quite assured.

"Explain." said the General, to the point as usual.

"Sir, I believe you should come here. There are certain elements that cannot be explained over a voice line."

Chief Thomson's voice was more stable, but the General could still read an amount of confusion in the Chief's convictions. Despite that, the General had clearly percieved the hint that the info was too hot for the military line. Making up his mind, the General told the Commander that he was "on his way", and cut the connection.

Then, the General gave his orderly instructions to get a helojet ready for immediate departure for ThreatNet HQ. When the orderly had rushed off and the General was alone, he opened his office safe and took out a special phone. Outwardly, it was indistinguishable from any other currently available portable communication unit, but this one had processing power and encryption units that were years ahead of commercial models. He activated it and, checking a list put in the safe next to the phone, made two very short calls. The safe was closed by the time the orderly, panting, returned to announce that the helojet was ready. The General rushed off, a leather briefcase in hand. His orderly struggled to keep up with him.

In the briefcase was a very special phone, set on standby.

- Earth : Space Threat Detection HQ -

Chief Commander Thomson was baking in the sun, waiting for the General's helojet to appear over the landing pad. The location was great for isolation, but it was a real bummer for someone who liked snowy winters. Around here, Benjamin thought to himself while stroking his freshly-shaven chin, the coolest it gets is the mid-fifties. Strange how it can drop to below zero at night though. Chief Thomson liked to walk inside the secure perimeter in the wee hours before sunrise. This morning it hadn't been possible, and it looked like it wasn't going to be possible for some time. If the cause hadn't been so potentially exciting - and frightening - he would have been glum. Instead, he was tense to the point of not minding the heat beating down on him.

He waited for a quarter of an hour before the radar officer in the building behind him gave a shout through the window. Chief Commander Thomson acknowledged with a nod, and started walking in direction of the pad circles, a hundred yards from the radar building. He got there barely ten seconds before the helojet appeared with screaming engines over the rocky ridge to his left. A few seconds later, he had to hold his hat with one hand and shield his eyes with the other while the helojet hovered above the pad. The aircraft's engines were screaming a lot less, but the air displaced by the twin rotors was powerful enough to knock over a man unprepared to resist it.

Chief Thomson had ample experience of helojet rotors, and he weathered the experience without too much trouble. The passenger hatch popped open as soon as the rotors had slowed down enough to allow egress. Knowing the General, Chief Thomson was fairly sure that he had been pesting against the securities that kept the hatch shut until safety conditions were optimal. Indeed, the General was the first to emerge, jumping out and landing on two booted feet like a paratrooper fifty years younger. He strode towards the Commander, taking him by the arm and dragging him out of the rotor's noise zone. The General's orderly clambered out of the helojet in a comparatively laborious fashion, and had to run to catch up with the pair, briefcase firmly in hand.

"So, what's so damn important !" the General yelled over the racket as soon as his voice could be heard. They quickly got out of range, and the Commander started delivering his report while they all climbed into the jeep.

"Well, Sir, we have a persistent anomaly that cannot be explained away by any sort of equipment malfunction."

"The hardware is good ?" asked the General.

"All checks are positive, the material is working perfectly." answered Chief Thomson. "Doctor Richards is still working on getting all of our data collated, but it would seem we have enough for a rough estimate."

The driver stopped in front of the command center. The three men climbed out and went into the cooled atmosphere of the building.

"So, what's the estimate ?" asked the General, when the door had closed.

"Sir, Doctor Richards thinks that the anomaly is not an asteroid." said Chief Thomson.

"And what is your opinion ?" asked the General, looking into the Chief's eyes.

Chief Commander Benjamin Thomson withstood the General's scrutiny without flinching. "Sir, I believe she may be right."

Susan Richards was exhausted, but her stamina was going strong, fueled by raw determination and large pots of navy-black coffee. All night she had toiled relentlessly, under the occasional watch of Chief Thomson. He never bothered her, never said anything when he came in. He just appeared for a few minutes, looked at the screens, checked the data being printed on paper, and left without a word.

Susan had kept working on her program. She wanted to reevaluate the raw data of the past six months in light of her newfound knowledge. She wanted to redesign the output analysis considering an incredible theory : that GravNet had been functioning correctly all the time, and the fluctuations that had been the source of so many support calls were actually real. It had seemed a titanic task at the beginning, but she had continuously found that existing modules could be reused with minor tweaking, thus her application had greatly advanced in the few hours she had had. By two a.m., she had a working alpha giving a first evaluation of the new data. By dawn, she had collected enough data units to start getting a picture of the events. It was encouraging, in a sense, but it was also foreboding.

It was this sense of foreboding that she felt the most that morning, in the hastily arranged meeting room. A table had been brought in, and she had dumped some large stacks of papers containing her analysis in its current state. She knew that she did not have all the data, but she also knew she had enough to make a strong case in front of a jury of her peers. Unfortunately, this "General" was not a peer, and she did not know just how he would react to what she was going to say. Was he going to take her for a crackpot ? As a matter of fact, was she a crackpot ? She questioned herself for a few seconds, finding no answer. If worst came to worst, she'd just have to say "I did what I thought was best".

She and Lieutenant Morse were waiting in the room when Chief Thomson came in, followed by the General. Doctor Richards viewed the newcomer as a person she had to win to her cause, else something terrible happen in the near future. After all, aliens from God only knew where might be poised to strike Earth at this very moment, from the confines of their new base in Earth's solar system. The thought chilled her. If they really were aggressive, what could Humanity possibly do to defend itself ? She cleared the anxiety from her mind and rose to greet the General.

"Sir, this is Doctor Richards." said Chief Thomson, presenting her to the General.

"Good morning, Ma'am. You look tired." said the General.

"Well, I'll admit that sleep has been a bit lacking lately." Doctor Richards answered with a small smile.

"And this is Lieutenant Morse, Technical Assistant" continued Chief Thomson, gesturing towards the young Lieutenant who stood at attention.

"As you were, soldier", said the General, offering his hand to shake.

The Lieutenant promptly saluted this legendary figurehead, and shook his hand with enormous respect. He had heard of the old commando (who hadn't ?), and he was quite impressed to be able to actually see the man face-to-face. But David Morse was even more interested in what all the commotion was about. He had left his shift yesterday at four p.m., to come back this morning at four a.m. and had observed that neither Doctor Richards, nor Chief Thomas had gone home to sleep.

With Doctor Richards, he was not overly surprised. She had already pulled quite a few all-nighters in the server room, so the only unusual element was the timing. After all, in the absence of equipment failure, the software was functioning well enough to not require such a sudden effort. Much more surprising, though, was the fact that Chief Thomson had stayed overnight as well. That was exceedingly rare. Of course, some sort of timeout had been unofficially declared between the Dragon and the rest of the world, so maybe that explained it. Still, Lieutenant Morse was quite intrigued as to the content of the morning meeting, given the night's activity and the presence of the General. He was sure that he was going to be in for quite a show.

"So, Richards, why has Chief Thomson refused to say anything over secure military channels ?" General McWinter had a habit of cutting the chase to the essential parts.

Susan Richards suppressed her surprised at this revelation. When Chief Thomson had told her the General was coming and needed a complete report, she had assumed that he had told the General the basics of the issue. She looked at Thomson.

"You didn't tell him anything ?" she asked, just for confirmation.

"Just that he needed to come here for a full explanation." answered Chief Thomson.

"Very well." said Richards. "I think he was right, General. If he had told you over the phone, you would probably have sent a psychiatrist to check me out."

"That can still happen." said the General, his mouth a thin line. "You'd better be convincing, Richards." he continued, and sat down.

"I'll do my best, General." Doctor Richards said with a sigh.

"As you know, yesterday morning at around twenty past four a.m., an anomalous reading from GravNet credited Ganymede, one of Jupiter's larger moons, with a small but significant increase in mass in the range of ten billion metric tons. Such an increase can obviously not be spontaneous, and was initially put down to errors in instrument readings. However, the controls that Lieutenant Morse implemented to verify the equipment and its results were conclusive : there was no malfunction. So what could the problem be ?"

Doctor Richards proceeded to quickly explain away the asteroid theory on the premise that either it would have been detected before, or there would have been massive fallout material gravitating around the moon that could be detected by other means now. None of these elements had shown up, proof of which she had curtesy to a snapshot of Ganymede done by the Orbital Eye that was part of the ThreatNet detection equipment arsenal.

"I spent the rest of the day trying to find out what was wrong in my code. Since the project's inception, apart from a few equipment failures, the Gravitational Variation Detection Network has functioned within parameters until six months ago." Susan said.

"That's when we started getting small, inconsistent spikes in the readings." added Chief Thomson.

"And we all assumed it was a code error." the General agreed.

"Indeed," nodded Susan. "And I worked on the code to try to smooth out the errors without removing valid data. In effect, I implemented a coherency control that flagged the spikes as worthless data, but luckily I logged everything in order to be able to re-analyse it later. What happened yesterday morning is simply a spike of such a size that the dumbing-down code could not keep from passing it on in the normal data stream."

"Okay, so this big spike says `you can't ignore me´, and you decide what ?" asked the General.

"Well, I decided to change the approach." answered Richards.

"And which approach did you adopt ?" asked the General, visibly interested.

"I imagined that the data was good, that the spikes were really there. I have been trying all night to get a picture of what the evolution is." said Susan Richards.

"Hm, I can go with that. And what do we have now ?" asked McWinter.

"If I can resume the timeline, six months ago the spikes were small compared to now, and far between. The first spike registered at around 450 million metric tons, and disappeared after five minutes. The next spike was in the same range, and left after twenty minutes." said Doctor Richards.

"How long after the first ?" asked the General.

"Eight days. Then, nineteen days later, a bigger spike registered, in the billion metric tons. It dropped to twelve million after seven minutes, then it disappeared after half an hour." Susan continued. "I have a chart here, it is incomplete because the ICNC units have not yet all responded, but . . ."

"What do you mean, calc units ?" interrupted the General. "Are you saying that you've put this data on the Net ?"

"Well, Sir," Susan answered, floundering under this unexpected behaviour. "I only submitted units for free and open calculation slots, I haven't engaged any budgetary costs on this."

"Damn it, Richards, this is sensitive military data ! Do you have any idea what you have let loose ?" the General leapt to his feet, almost shaking with rage. "I'm going to have your hide for this, woman !"

"My ass you will !" Susan shot back. The nerve of him ! "Do you know how many people are capable of interpreting this data ?" The General was suddenly stopped short. "There must be four people in the entire human settlements, and I'm one of them ! Plus, nobody else has GravNet and nobody else is working with this ! Not to mention that the only sensitive code is here, and I'm the one coding it !"

"Please, Doctor, General, please . ." Chief Thomson tried to take control of this spiraling argument that was heading straight for the wall. "General, we can discuss the breach in security later . ."

"We will," said the General coldly, "And you'll have some answering to do there too, Commander."

"Yes Sir, I agree, but" Thomson put up a hand in Doctor Richards direction, along with a beseeching look from his eyes, "could you please put that aside for the moment and listen to what she has concluded ?"

Amid the tension, the General remained motionless for a few seconds, then appeared to come to a conclusion and sat down. "Proceed." he stated gruffly.

Doctor Richards continued in a cold voice. "The primary result of the calculations gives a picture of increased activity in the vicinity of Ganymede. The spikes start gradually, within large intervals in time, then the intervals shorten and the size of the spikes do as well." Doctor Richards handed out a printed chart underlining the major events to the General.

"Okay, so you have gravitational variations that increase in frequency and decrease in size. How does that explain anything ?" asked the General stiffly.

"Lieutenant, do you have the data I asked for this morning ?" Susan looked at the Lieutenant, who immediately rose to his feet.

"Yes Doctor." Morse handed Richards another paper chart.

"I have asked the Lieutenant to gather all radioastronomy data feeds taken from the direction of Jupiter, and Ganymede in particular. He has removed Jupiter's background activity and plotted their intensity on a time chart." She put the new chart on the table, below the chart of gravity spikes. Everyone looked intently at the two papers. Lieutenant Morse was the first to come to a conclusion, and he gasped when he did.

"Yes, Lieutenant," said Richards with a half-smile. "they match. The scale is not exactly the same, and the timeline is a bit streched compared to the gravitational data, but the lumps are in the same place. I'm sure that, if we do a direct statistical analysis, we will find that both charts are mathematically linked with a high probability of correlation." Susan was almost happy again, things had turned out better than hoped for.

"So," McWinter started, "we have radioactivity and EM spikes at the same time that we have gravitational spikes. That definitely rules out asteroids, doesn't it, Doctor ?"

"Yes, General, it does. It also rules out any man-made activity since Mankind has not yet established any sort of radio transmitter in that region of space."

"So, Doctor, what is your primary conclusion ?" the General asked, with the air of someone who was expecting a given answer.

Susan Richards was aware that her entire career was hinged on the words she was going to say. She took a deep breath and said : "General, I believe that this data proves conclusively that our Galaxy harbors other forms of intelligent life aside from our own, and this intelligent species has elected Ganymede as its base in our Solar System." There, it was said.

Lieutenant Morse was dumbstruck. He had glimpsed the truth when the two charts had been put side by side, but hearing it in its bare form from a recognized scientific authority gave it an air of authenticity that floored him.

As for Chief Commander Thomson, he winced at the words as if he had spent most of the night before trying to forget that such was the goal they wanted to demonstrate. Faced with the awesome inevitability of it all, he sat down and just looked at the General, waiting for a reaction.

As for General McWinter, he appeared to study the paper charts with great intensity, as if he could derive a different conclusion, any other conclusion, instead of that one. But the charts were clear, and the data was incontroversial. The General had no doubt that statistical analysis would confirm correlation to a degree he already considered far higher than was comfortable. He looked up and set his eyes on Doctor Richards.

"Very well, Doctor, I will not dispute your conclusion." The three others sighed almost together in palpable relief. "But," continued McWinter, "you still have a lot of work to do before you can justify this beyond any doubt, am I right ?"

Susan Richards nodded her agreement. Her mouth was oddly dry all of a sudden, and she was desperate for a glass of water.

"You're going to need a lot of processing power to pull this off." said the General, as if he was ticking off in his mind a list of requirements. "And that means you will need the proper authorisations to get that power." He turned to Chief Thomson. "Meanwhile, Commander, I will hold you personally responsible for any additional breach in security here." he said in a stern voice.

The Chief nodded dutifully, and the General turned back to the scientist.

"There will be no more data from this project on public channels, is that clear ?" said the General.

"Well, yes, but how long will it take to . . ?" stammered Richards.

"It won't." the General cut her short. "As of right now, I am taking executive control over ThreatNet and all attending resources. You are hereby consigned to this facility, and all outgoing communications are forbidden without my express authorisation. I will contact SAC and get the necessary arrangements for your extended stay in the premises." the General announced the measures with his customary authority and assurance that there would be no questions asked.

Surprisingly enough, even Richards kept herself quiet.

"Good, I see that you all know what this means to our entire civilization. Is there anything you need ?" said the General.

"Seeing as I am going to be here a while, could someone go to my appartment and get me some clothes ?" asked Susan, her voice slightly plaintive.

McWinter smiled. "Of course, Ma'am. I will detail a few female personnel to scour your appartment for everything they think you may need. Rest assured that they will not miss anything, they are quite experienced in such matters."

"Thank you, General." answered Doctor Richards. Well who would've guessed ? she thought to herself, he can be quite considerate when he wants to.

"Very well, then." said the General, all business again. "Commander, I will be taking this office as my headquarters. You may leave the papers, I'll be needing them."

The three others turned to leave the room.

"Oh, and get my orderly in here, I need my briefcase." ordered the General. He was obeyed in an instant.

Susan Richards was feeling very good. While supervising the return of the remaining ICNC units, she reflected that, although she was exhausted and had taken a big risk, it seemed to be paying off. She intended to take her afternoon in a few minutes, but first she wanted to check on the progress meter of her project. It would soon be done, there were only a few thousand more calc units waiting in the queue. A portion of them were allocated to ICNC units, as she had tried to explain to the General. She really had no idea how the General could expect to get meaningful results quickly if she hadn't taken advantage of the public processing capacity of the Net. As for security concerns, she scoffed at the mere idea. She was a leader in her field, and every unit was encrypted with top-level access codes. It would take days for a hacker to break one unit, and although millions had been allocated publicly, they were only a portion of the whole. No, Susan said to herself, there is no way anybody can piece any sort of information from the units themselves. No way.

Having completed her check, she was about to leave the room when she noticed a whining noise coming from outside. Curious, she looked through the reinforced slate-glass window. What she saw left her speechless.

There was a whole squadron of combat helojets hovering above the compound. They were guarding a score of heavy transports, some of which had already touched down and were disengorging their cargo. More than a hundred men were already running around in apparent disorder. Hundreds more were lining up to take their orders, and yet more were streaming out of the smaller transports. Ground vehicles and armored tanks were rolling out of the biggest transports, turning and moving about under unknown orders. Susan Richards had never witnessed military troops in action, and she was getting an eyefull in one very short time.

After a few moments, she forced herself away from the mesmerizing sight of chaos being brought into order. That was when she noticed the General on one side of the commotion, standing in a jeep with some communications gear on his head, giving orders and watching their effect. Well, Susan thought to herself, he's not kidding when he takes control. She turned away from the view and set off to find herself a bed. Boys with toys may be interesting for a minute, but rest was more important.

- Earth : the Pentagon -

"I must see the President."

The words were spoken in a soft but firm voice, by White House Chief Defense Advisor Mike Brennard. As he cradled the phone on his shoulder, he thought about the phone call he had just got from the old General. The information that he had been given was enough to shock any normal man, but with the Senator's responsibilities, the shock was multiplied greatly.

How can Earth defend itself from being invaded by an alien civilisation capable of pulling ten billion tons of hardware out of God knows where ? The Senator did not know the answer, but he did know that Earth had a historical record of weakness in the face of invasion - and that in wars between its own factions, never mind attackers from other worlds. If the aliens had the intent of taking over Earth and enslaving or killing the local population, Senator Brennard would not be able to suggest anything to stop them. The issue was clear : as long as the intents of the aliens were not known, everything was possible. And Senator Brennard's job was to imagine the worst and help defend against it. Except that, this time, there was no defense that could feasibly work.

Oh sure, Mike had seen various sci-fi flicks about alien invasions. From the reruns of cheesy B-rated films of mid-last century, to the slick, well-imagined bugfests that dominated the modern versions, he had seen many of them. And practically all of them included a trick, something, anything that could explain how Humanity could prevail. And Humanity always did prevail - because films were entertainement and it was not fun imagining that your planet and civilisation were doomed.

Unfortunately, Mike thought, this is not film. There will be no magic program to upload to the mothership this time, nor will there be some heroic Captain to save the day, and counting on bacteria will probably take way too much time, in addition to being useless. Indeed, an alien civilisation that can span interstellar distances will certainly be wary of any possible biological threat, and will act with all necessary precautions before exposing themselves to our atmosphere. Aliens are certainly more intelligent than Hollywood gives them credit for - after all, if they were stupid, they'd probably still be stuck on their own planet. Just like us, Mike thought.

A sound from the earpiece brought the Senator back from his dark musings. His correspondant confirmed his request, and gave him a meeting time. It was rather good this time ; he had fourty minutes to get everything ready. After hanging up, Mike called his secretary and asked for a helojet in twenty minutes - primed and ready. He then proceeded to gather the required documentation.

When his secretary came in to notify him that his transport was ready, Senator Brennard was almost ready. He stuffed a few more papers into the briefcase, closed and locked it, and exited his office in direction of the helopad.

This was going to be one hell of a serious meeting, Mike thought.

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