Back to Chapter Two
Home        Index Chapter Four


by sharok rillk

Chapter Three : Maneuvers

- Earth : White House level -4 -

When Senator Brennard had finished his briefing, the assembly took a few seconds to pull itself together. Even President Lyndall had difficulty overcoming the enormity of what he had just heard.

"Okay, so we have little green men building themselves a home on Ganymede. Is there any reason to think that they have detected us ?" asked the President.

"Sir, if I may say so, given the amount of unnatural radio signals emitted from our planet, our being undetected would be highly surprising." answered the Chief Defense Advisor.

"What do you mean, unnatural ?" asked the President.

"Unnatural as in obviously not from natural origin. Our planet does not emit radio waves in any appreciable quantity, contrary to Jupiter which, by its mass and constitution, generates a lot of natural radio activity, sometimes even more than our Sun. However, our civilization generates a lot of radio activity that is coded, thus not natural. This fact cannot have escaped the aliens, whatever their intentions are."

"And how can we guess what they want ?" ventured President Lyndall.

"Well, Sir, there is no way from this distance. Although we can infer some things from the fact that, in the past six months, they have been content with settling in on Ganymede and have not yet come knocking at our door. On the other hand, the ten billion or so tons that have recently appeared may be the sign of an impending movement on their part, in which case I would have to think that ten billion tons of hardware is hardly needed for a polite knock on a new neighbor's door."

That answer generated some discussion amid the few people admitted in the room. While the others were chatting, trying to adjust to the new situation, Mike Brennard reviewed his information once more, and settled down to monitor the conversation. A retired admiral was now leading the discussion by commenting on the various weapons that were available (there were precious few) and how they could be modified to strike upper-atmosphere targets if necessary. Mike decided he had to pounce on that.

"Excuse me, Admiral Tawny, do you mean to say that we can reactivate the Star Wars project and make it work now, when it took years and countless dollars to build the useless thing we have at present ?" Senator Brennard's tone was cutting.

"Our Nuclear Protection Shield is hardly useless, there has thankfully been no menace to operate it against until now." Admiral Tawny shot back, confident in his ability to deal blow for blow.

"Thankfully indeed, since the last operational success rate was pegged at sixty-two percent. And the accusations of score-tweaking have never been satisfactorily explained away up to today. Not to mention that many experts criticised the very virtual scenario that the tests considered, saying it was hardly representative of a modern-day threat. Do you have more information on that that you would care to share with us now ?" Brennard was stepping down mercilessly on the Admiral.

"Gentlemen, " the President said, and the tension deflated somewhat. "I would like to think that we can defend ourselves and, if so, I do believe that our nuke shield could be called into play. However, if I am not mistaken, our new neighbors have the equivalent of some two thousand two hundred aircraft carriers parked over Jupiter. Even if just one-tenth of that mass is actual combat hardware, that would still leave us with more than two hundred top-of-the-line warships, and we are just talking tonnage here. Do we know anything about their technology ?"

"No Sir, although it would seem that their appearance in our solar system coincides with a brief and intense flurry of radio waves and EM radiation of a very peculiar kind." answered Senator Brennard.

"And what can we conclude from that ?" asked Admiral Tawny gruffly.

"Not a thing, Admiral. Not a thing." answered Brennard dutifully. "We haven't got any yardstick to measure these guys with, much less guess at their abilities. For all we know, they could be building a giant ray gun on Ganymede to shoot us with."

The discussion was once again swamped with various theories, as each participant tried to convey his rationalization of the event. President Lyndall let it roll for around twenty  more minutes, then once again took command of the room.

"Gentlemen, I believe that what we have been saying for the past half hour demonstrates our complete inability to guess at the intentions of our new visitors. As such, I think we will just have to wing it when the time comes. After all, if they start shooting a giant ray gun at us, there isn't much we can do about it, hmm ?" A slight smile accompanied those last words, but quickly disappeared. "What is more important in the short term is what we are going to do about ourselves. How many people are likely to know about this ?" the question was directed to the Chief Defense Advisor.

"Well Sir, even without a GravNet just about any radioastronomer is able to pick up the radio bursts. It would take special equipment to pinpoint Jupiter as the source, but many enthusiasts have that kind of hardware. We cannot discount the fact that they might have detected the radio bursts, but what will they make of it ? As I said earlier, Jupiter is a natural radio emitter. They could concievably come to the conclusion that it is part of a cycle of activity and leave it at that."

"What if they want to push their investigations ?"

"The only way to come to a reasonably precise conclusion would be to have the proper EM-detection equipment, and that is out of the reach of all but the richest of people. I would think that amateur radioastronomers will either not have the means to aquire such equipment, or will be far too rich to bother learning its proper use. If I may say so, Mr. President, I do not think the amateur community is a threat here. The other scientific houses are, though. For example, it stands to reason that although the European Space Agency does not have a functional GravNet to rely on, they have undoubtedly detected the radio and EM bursts and are actively studying them. We will have to deal with their questions at one point or another, and I think it would be a good idea to prepare for that sooner rather than later."

"Agreed." said the President. "What about our own scientists ?"

"Everyone that is working on the ThreatNet project has been quarantined by General McWinter, who has set up a strongly defended perimiter around the agency's HQ. All personnel on leave have been recalled and are currently being accounted for, so there should not be any leaks from there. We will have to find a way to negociate with NASA and the SETI group. I foresee no great difficulty with NASA, but the SETI group is worldwide, which means we will have to use a disproportionate amount of manpower and resources if we want to lock them all down."

The President took the information in quietly. "What about the Chinese Space Agency ?"

"Well, Sir, it is as usual difficult to correctly evaluate their abilites, but given that many Chinese radioastronomers have governmental approval for being part of the SETI project, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the Chinese government is capable of certain deductions on their own."

"Which doesn't mean they're going to go trumpeting it to high Heaven." the Foreign Affairs councilor, Jonathan D. Santorr spoke up. Santorr was one of the more respected members of the Inner Cabinet, and certainly one of the more experienced. Which was the reason for his presence in this highly-restricted meeting.

"No indeed." concurred Defense Minister Henry Arbunt. "With the existing social tensions already stretching the Chinese government's credibility, the panic that would ensue after such an announcement would probably be too much for Beijing to handle. They are quite close to the breaking point now, and they'll try to avoid any event that is likely to swamp their Territorial Security Forces."

Mike reflected that the Defense Minister was no doubt referring to the fact that most of the provinces under Chinese control were practically under curfew conditions. The TSF soldiers were present in every city and major town, and more patrolled constantly in the less populated regions. By all reports he had seen, being controlled by them was, at best, a brutal experience. China was practically at war with itself, and news like this was very probably going to be stifled and shut out at any cost. The lives of those who would try to get the word out in China were very much at risk. The first thing to go would probably be ICNet authorizations, as usual. Beijing would lock the doors and windows of the country, and take the phone off the hook. The worst thing about it all is that the whole world had practically gotten used to it.

"Yes, I think we can agree on that." said the President darkly. "Which leaves us with two sectors : South America and the United Russian Democracies. So, what about South America first ?"

Jonathan Santorr took the ball on that one. "Well, in all honesty Brazil is the only country with an economy that is stable and powerful enough to generate a scientific community capable of evaluating this kind of information. Since they do not have a GravNet either, they'll be reduced to the same kind of educated guessing that the ESA will do, albeit with individuals of somewhat less experience than the ESA scientists. I don't view South America as being the ones to blow the whistle on this item."

Mike had to say something at that point. "I must agree. In addition, the reports I have on community activity in Brazil do not hint in the slightest at any abnormal activity from high-level scientific authorities." Mike was sure his reports were quite up to date and valid. The USA had infiltrated South American countries since generations ago, and kept a few high-ranking officials under its wing at all times. Getting info from South American countries was a walk in the park compared to China. Mike winced inwardly at the brief thought of all the secret agents who had failed to infiltrate the last remaining Communist state, and had paid for that failure in blood. "I think we can count them out on this one." he finished, his voice confident.

"Okay, so that leaves us with the URD." stated President Lyndall. "What about them ?"

The Chief Defense Advisor had long thought about that point. What about the United Russian Democracies ? After the chaotic events of the Orange Revolution, the former Free Russian States (themselves formerly known as United Soviet Socialist Republic) had switched from a group of political entities paying lip service to democracy, to a closely-knit group of oligarchies whose rulers stemmed directly from the Russian mafias. The banner under which the mob men united themselves was an insult to true democracies, but their financial clout was so mighty that no other country could go about ignoring them. The URD was a keen capitalist player, cunning and ruthless. But it was also a great money-maker, and there were too many aspects of worldwide economics that depended on them to just go in and kill them. The fact that the URD had managed to put itself in such a safe haven while so much of its activities were borderline illegal never failed to amaze and disgust Senator Brennard, who had always been an outspoken activist against their blatantly criminal ways.

"Well, Sir, as you well know we do not have all the resources we would like to evaluate the capabilities of the URD." which was quite the understatement, Mike thought while saying it.

That was a regular thorn in the side of the CIA. Dealing with URD organizations was a real pain. Somehow, it seemed that they always found out about every spy sent their way, and the result was invariably gruesome. It was only a question of time before the currently available sources were discovered and terminated, and asking questions about things that you should not ask about in the first place was a quick and painful way to end your career. The URD officials were brutally efficient in counter-spy measures, due to the fact that many of them had benefited from the Soviet KGB-era training of their forefathers, and they systematically applied that knowledge in their every day business.

"Yes, I am reminded about that almost every day." answered the President grimly. "But the question is, what do we know about their scientific abilities at this point ?"

Mike cleared his throat. "Sir, you must remember that, historically speaking, the territories controlled by the URD represent some of the richest scientific minds of the planet. Russians have always been great mathematical minds, and today there are many scientists that are working in departments whose budgets are as large as the whole budget of NASA. On the other hand, if the URD is very space-oriented, it is not for scientific purposes, but for purely economical reasons. Thus, although they may have some very qualified individuals in their laboratories, I somehow doubt that these people are spending time watching for signals from space."

"So, your position is that the URD is not going to be able to discover this information ?" asked President Lyndall.

"Exact, Sir. I fail to see how the URD would allocate resources to watch for an event of such remote potential benefit. It is contrary to their repeatedly demonstrated pursuit of profit."

"Yes," Santorr said with a smile. "It's only us rich countries that can waste money on pipe dreams, isn't it ?" The others at the table had a quick chuckle.

Although spoken without malice, the words stung Mike deeply. Santorr was right, in folly or wisdom, Europe and the USA had spent countless billions of dollars on scientific endeavours of questionable return, while many Third-world countries saw their populations beset by hunger and disease. Yet, if there had ever been an excuse for all those lives and all those dollars, the ability to detect an alien presence before seeing a flying saucer above the White House would certainly have to be the most important result imaginable. Aside from a cure for world hunger, of course.

Mike put his mind back on the matter at hand just as President Lyndall started speaking.

"Very well, Gentlemen. In short, we have aliens in our solar system with unidentified intentions, and we cannot do anything specific at the moment. Admiral ? I would like you to start pushing people to present to you a plan for defending against an alien attack with the means we have at our disposal."

"Sir ? Would it not be better to put this in a different wording ? Such as : plan to defend against a swarm of planet-killing asteroids ?" the Admiral asked, a worried look on his face.

"Sounds ridiculous." Mike couldn't help but comment.

"Yes." said the President, before the Admiral could respond to this new outrage. "But it is still better than mentioning aliens." The Admiral simmered down. "Very well, let us call this Project Killer Swarm Defense. You shall impress to your people that this is very serious, right ?"

"Of course, Mr. President." the Admiral answered.

"And Mike ?" Lyndall said.

"Yes Sir ?"

"Make sure to keep a tight lid on this. I would hate to see a special CNN broadcast about aliens next week. Or even next month, for that matter."

"I'll make sure no news hack can hear a single thing, Mr. President."

"Very well, Gentlemen, we will reconvene in a week's time to discuss the Admiral's new plan. Meanwhile, I expect all of you to keep me updated immediately on any new event concerning this alien presence. Top priority."

As President Lyndall ended the meeting, the four other men present stood up and nodded their agreement silently. They were all very much aware that none of them would be having much sleep in the upcoming week.

- Earth : USA-controlled territories -

In the hours that followed General McWinter's return to military power, and during the time when Senator Brennard was ensuring the President that everything was under control, a number of houses were visited by a much larger number of men in uniform. These men had strict orders, and they obeyed them without question. The questions would come later, but by then they would be useless.

At the present time, the men arrived by pairs in single cars, or escorting a Hummer and a transport bus. The scenario was always the same : for single cars, the pair would come to the door, rang the bell and, when open, enter and order the lone occupant to get a bag ready and follow them. For convoys with a bus, the convoy would stop in front of a house or an appartment block, several soldiers would exit the Hummer and catch up with the pair from the car, and all would walk to the door that they were interested in. Upon gaining entrance, the whole group would politely, but firmly, round up the family and chuck them in the bus, where an armed guard would take station at each exit.

When the various people had been secured in their transports, cars and convoys would set forth under the watchful eyes of other citizens . . or in complete indifference.

Somehow, no one phoned their local news desk to report this curious activity.

- Earth : Space Threat Detection HQ -

Doctor Susan Richards was feeling pretty good the next morning. Even though it was barely 2 a.m. when she awoke, the success of the day before and the amount of work still left to do energized her and made the day's outlook seem positive.

Until she got to the server room, where a pair of surly Marines sporting automatic weapons prevented her from entering the room, stating that she had to see the General first. Undaunted, but more curious than angry, she turned and walked to the General's new office. When she opened the door (after being granted access by another pair of gruff Marines), she found the office quite different from yesterday's barren space.

A number of screens had been placed over a long workbench sporting a rather complete replica of Lieutenant Morse's desk on one side of the room. On the other side, another table was decked out in maps and documents of various kinds. The middle table was covered in paper as well as empty coffee cups. The General was sitting opposite the door, and was dictating orders to a new face that was quicktyping on a laptop of rugged design. Two operators were manning the workbench, and another orderly was occupied shuffling paper. It was a small beehive of activity, and Susan felt very much out of place. But, in order to regain her haven of safety, she apparently had to bear it out. So, she closed the door and waited for the General to finish his dictation.

If the General was tired, it did not show. The General had no inclination for wasting time though, and he cut his orders short and said "Doctor Richards, sit down please. Sergeant, give her the contract you have prepared."

The sergeant complied with great speed, and returned to his paper shuffling. Susan opened the file and stared at the papers, not quite awake enough to grasp what was happening.

"Read it quickly please," said McWinter. "and sign at the bottom. This will give you all the authorizations you have been lacking up to now, so you can get on with your work at record speed."

"But what am I signing ?" asked Richards, still trying to catch up.

"This is your A-level confidentiality contract. With this, you become my employee and are cleared for almost everything that is not considered Executive Eyes Only. In other words, you have almost as much access as the President." came the stunning response.

"But, isn't this the equivalent of signing up with the Army directly ?" Susan asked, not quite believing what was happening.

"Much better, Doctor, it's a golden pass for all the processor power you want, and a great boost for your personal funding. Now, sign it so we can get on with the next item on my agenda." The General stood up, expecting Richards to sign the document immediately.

"And there is no catch, no tripwire, no hidden clause ?" Doctor Richards was in control of herself again, and very wary.

"Well, nothing, aside from the fact that, once you've signed, you'll be forced to take orders from me and do as you are told, when you are told to. But I am an understanding soul, and I will not expect much more than your very best." McWinter almost smiled. "Besides, if you don't sign it, I'll have you locked up when you're not on the job. Security hazard, you see. Cannot allow any security hazard loose around here any more."

"But if I sign, then I'm no longer a hazard ?"

"No, because if you do screw up, you'll be liable for court-martial and I'll be clean as a whistle." came the curt, to-the-point answer.

"I see. In the end, this is all for you." said Richards darkly.

"Yes Ma'am. I get results quickly, and by the book. And if you screw up, I have a book to throw at you. Makes my life a lot easier, and makes yours a bit easier. Seems a good deal to me." McWinter was dead serious. "And you're getting a threefold increase in salary, in case you haven't noticed."

"Sounds like it's not enough to have to work with you." Susan returned.

The General chuckled. "Probably not, but I can't do more than that right now. So, are you signing, or do I have to detail a squad to cover your every move 24/7 ?"

Susan sighed. "Alright, I'm signing." And she proceeded to do so.

McWinter waited until the Doctor had finished, checked the signature and motioned for the sergeant to take care of the file. Then without a word, he gestured for Susan to follow him. They both exited the office, and the General led her down the corridor to another office. Opening the door, he waited for her to enter.

Susan stopped at the entrance and looked inside. On a table, a camo dufflebag was resting, with a file laying next to it. Around the table, three young and fit ladies in army fatigues were standing at attention. Susan stepped inside and toward the table. The General entered.

"At ease." he said. "Doctor Richards, may I present to you Major Callahan, and Sergents Dowly and Short. These are the ladies I sent to your appartment, and this is what they brought back." he pointed to the duffle bag. "Unfortunately, it would seem that the Major has something else to report." He nodded to the woman at the center of the trio, who resumed standing at attention with practiced ease.

"Sir, my team and I entered Doctor Richards appartment at 12:45 p.m. yesterday. The door was unlocked, and the premises showed every sign of having been ransacked. We did manage to salvage a number of useful personal belongings, but it is obvious that the area had been thoroughly taken apart." Having apparently finished her report, Major Callahan resumed the at ease stance, her eyes now observing Doctor Richards.

Susan felt like she had suddenly been punched in the stomach. Her appartment, ransacked ? The door, open ? How ?

The General took a step toward the file, picked it up and opened it. "Unless you are a very unorganized woman, I do believe this proves the Major's point."

Inside the file were a number of pictures taken of the appartment. The pictures clearly showed open drawers, papers strewn all over the floor, and almost all of her limited amount of furniture pulled to one side. When Susan reached the pictures of her desk, she gasped, quickly putting a hand to her mouth. The desk had been all but turned over. Some close-ups had thoughtfully been taken, showing in excruciating detail the amount of carnage in what was left of her personal papers. Tears welled up to her eyes at this desecration of her privacy, her personal life and her work, but she kept hold of herself sternly.

"I am truly sorry, Doctor Richards." said the General. "I know from experience just how unpleasant it is to be burglared. Unfortunately, there is something I must know now : did you have any elements of code, reports or other information on ThreatNet in your office ?" McWinter leaned almost instinctively toward her, his eyes seeking to extract the truth from hers.

Susan almost recoiled from McWinters powerful aura, but she succeeded in standing straight and looked him straight in the eye. "Yes, I had some information I was using to create a paper on gravitometrics and the problems between theory and applied physics. I was scheduled to present that paper in the next semester."

"And what was the level of confidentiality of the information you had ?" pressed the General.

"Well, there wasn't any lines of code from our project, but there was a construct based on the theory." Susan replied, searching her memory. "And there must have been a copy of a status report summary I was looking over from time to time." She almost winced at the look in the General's eyes. Steel fury was lurking behind them, but it was being kept in check - until it was needed.

"Let me ask this another way : did whoever did this get enough information to replicate your work here, or get a glimpse of it ?" asked McWinter, getting to the root of the problem.

Susan thought it out for a minute. Not a sound was heard, apart from quiet breathing. Everyone waited patiently for her conclusion. She had of course wrote extensive papers on the theory behind GravNet before the start of this project, and she obviously had her own copies. But that information was almost public, so there would be no gain there. Looking at the pictures again, she confirmed to herself that her spare backup hardware was gone, which meant that a lot of files discussing the issues of implementing the hardware were gone too, but they were old. She was certain of one thing, though : not one line of code had left the server room.

She spoke at last. "They took my spare backup disk," the General's eyes hardened at that piece of news, but he remained silent. "so they will find some data on the hardware we are using. If they piece that together with the public papers on theoretical gravitational variation physics, they might be able to actually get some readings. But the software is here, and not a line has gotten outside the server room."

"Are you sure of that ?" the General asked quickly.

"Unless your network has been compromised, yes, I'm sure." answered Susan immediately.

McWinter pondered that information for a few moments. He was of course aware that hardware was important, but he knew that it was the software that really made the difference. He also knew that many of the parts comprising the detectors were made of commercially-available components, so just about anybody could concievably slap a detector together without much trouble. But having the hardware and knowing how to make it work to obtain the correct result were two entirely different subjects. He decided that he had only one thing left to do.

"Very well, Doctor. I want you to check and make sure that none of your files have been tampered with or accessed at abnormal times. I will instruct Commander Thomson to do a full security audit at the first opportunity. Between the two of you, we should be pretty sure that GravNet is secure." McWinter said. "Now, I would like you to check your program again." He motioned to the other women standing by, who immediately came to attention and filed out of the room silently.

Wondering what this could be about, Susan looked at the old man quizzically and waited for an explanation.

"Yes Doctor, there is a little point that intrigues me. We have decided that these gravitational variations represent alien spaceships. My question is : can we determine how many ? What would we need to obtain a valid result ?"

"Define your notion of when a result is valid."

"When I can use it as a radar to define how many objects are detected and what their mass is with 99.99% accuracy."

Susan was taken aback at the precision the General demanded. She started answering that such a result was impossible to obtain, but somehow, something kept her from opening her mouth to ridicule him.

"Just think it over, okay ? Take your time on this - but I want a positive anwer." Upon uttering the words, the General turned away from her and walked out the door, back to his office.

Susan remained motionless for a few seconds. The utter callousness of the General had gotten under her skin. Come back when you can tell me I'm right ? What am I, a house maid ? Just good for setting the table and mopping the floor ? Science does not bend itself to the needs of Man, General or not !

With those thoughts, and a few more unkind ones for leaving her to deal with the heavy bag alone, she lugged her possessions to the room that was hers. She spent an hour sorting through her things, but since it didn't make her feel any better, she abandoned that for the server room. She needed to put her mind on something interesting. Besides, during her house chores, a nagging thought had entered her brain. She had noticed it lurking in the dark recesses of her mind about halfway through putting her clothes in drawers. Another thirty minutes and the strain had proven to be too much. She had to do something to find out.

She left her room and walked at a fair pace toward the server room. She had totally forgotten the security audit the General had asked for. She had only one thing in mind : could it be done ?

Could she really train GravNet to tell her how many spaceships were out there ?

- Ganymede (more than 600 million kilometers from Earth) -

Ganymede. A ball of molten iron surrounded by silicate rock, and enveloped in a mantle of ice. A dark ball of slush, pockmarked and wrinkled by eons of asteroid bombardment and slight tectonic activity. Although the moon is actually larger than Mercury, its composition gives it only half the mass. Such a body would appear quite unlikely to be chosen as a stopover when more luscious, life-harboring bodies exist not far away (relatively speaking, 600 million clicks is peanuts for a civilisation who can span distances measured in parsecs). Nevertheless, if some adventurous astronaut from Earth had managed to span the distance between Humanity's home planet and this barren rock, he would be in for quite a surprise.

On the night side of the moon, two massive starships floated in the midst of a flotilla. At nearly two thousand feet from bow to stern, and no less than six hundred feet in diameter, the two ships were an imposing sight. The ships were like twins, obviously based on the same model. Each one was shaped like a crushed cylinder. The bow was large and circular, the stern was abruptly cut off to allow the engine nozzels to appear. The length of the ships were dotted with little points of light set in rows.

Several smaller ships maintained a tight formation with the main vessels. At slightly more than half the length of the two big ones, they were still quite a sight. Yet, their overall structure was more stubby, and their sides sported long, rectangular holes that were awash in blue light. This group of a half-dozen vessels was surrounded by a larger group of different vessels. First, around two dozen large, box-like ships were present. Smaller than the dominant twins, they were nonetheless larger than the four other ships of the primary group. Almost two-thirds the length of the capital ships, they were even wider, and had much less little lights dotting their sides. These were, in turn, surrounded by a dozen smaller vessels, barely a thousand feet in length, that seemed positively skinny next to the behemoths they were protecting.

A more detailed observation would reveal several protuberances on the two capital ships, then several smaller ones, also on the four other vessels. The behemoths of the second group were largely lacking these bumps, while the smaller, weaker-looking vessels had quite a few of them. Then again, weak did not quite correctly define these vessels. Their shape was quite wierd, like if someone had assembled a massive V-structure with a pipe and a clay triangle at the end. Yet, the business end was anything but weak-looking. It sported several massive tubular-shaped appendices that merged into a protective sheet at the rear of the V. The overall appearance was like that of a venomous snake ; ugly, but deadly. There was six of these, and six other, smaller models. The last six did not reach eight hundred feet, and were roughly tubular in shape. They hardly gave the menacing look of their larger cousins, until one came close enough to notice the number of small bumps on their sides.

Every bump was, in fact, a turret, with two or four cannons protruding from it and facing the bow. And in every ship present there was a number of these turrets, of various sizes. Dozens of ships, hundreds of turrets.

The fleet was lying in the shadow of Ganymede, carefully orbiting at exactly the speed required to keep the vast bulk of the jovian moon between itself and the central star of the system. At regular intervals, a pair of behemoths would drop to the moon's surface, landing next to a large, recently-built structure. The outpost sprawled over an area of three square miles on the surface, but that was only the visible portion. In truth, the structure occupied almost four and a half cubic miles of volume, deeply embedded in the crust of its host. The feeble density of the moon, coupled with alien technology, had made for a short excavation period before building could commence.

Inside the structure, hundreds of feet below the surface, many chambers were being built. Power generators were being coupled to power lines, defense grids were being tested.

The alien presence was getting ready for war.

- Earth : CIA headquarters, Langley -

Christopher Banning was in a hurry that morning. It was almost ten past eight, and he had just managed to park his car and get through the entrance. Really, he thought, something is going to have to be done about all this traffic.

As he charged up the stairs in the CIA building, quickly badging through various checkpoints, he tried to focus his mind on the upcoming meeting. This was the first time he was going to brief the Director of Operations personally, and he did not want to screw it. Yet, he was already late. Oh, bother.

Finally reaching the meeting room, he knocked and entered, only to find that the DDO was not there. Crestfallen, he imagined the worst - that the DDO had gotten tired of waiting for him and was off to other things. Mumbling excuses, he sat at an empty chair with his papers, and looked around. The three other people in the room he did not know, except for one : Chief Defense Advisor Brennard. But he did not know the man personally, only by news articles, so he kept quiet. He was soon relieved to learn that he was not the last one to be caught in traffic.

After a few minutes, Howard Killinger opened the door and came in. Killinger had been appointed DDO only two months ago, after a bureaucratic career whose principal merit was its insignificance. Killinger had managed to never make a ripple, never be noticed, and yet rise through the ranks at a steady, if not frantic, pace. There were quite a few who viewed Killinger as dumber than a doorknob, but secretly Banning thought that Killinger's insignificance was just the thing that a spy agency needed most. Who could possibly view the CIA as a threat with a nobody like Killinger at its helm ?

Being responsible for the overview of world press, Banning was very well placed to know what the rest of the world was officially thinking on a given subject. For him, the best proof of Killinger's efficiency was the fact that, in a time where quite a few countries were hellbent on killing each other, almost nobody was talking about the CIA. If no one was talking about it, that had to mean that very few people were thinking about it. Which, in turn, meant that even fewer people were worried about. And THAT meant that the CIA had virtual free reign to do whatever it thought best in the world, since practically nobody was on the lookout for it.

Of course, Banning was not so naive to imagine that the CIA was entirely ignored by all. It was obvious that all counterspy agencies in many foreign countries were on the lookout for any threat, and the CIA is a threat to any spy agency. Hell, the CIA had always been considered a threat even by the FBI - an American organization ! So, the CIA still had to tread lightly, but its aura was not currently threatening to many commentators, which signified an increased amount of paths along which the CIA could engage itself.

And that was a good thing, because the latest news was not of the best kind. It would seem that the White House had suddenly gone berserk about radio activity in space (of all places), and the word had been given to track down radioastronomers in the world and find out what they knew. Banning had therefor dutifully scoured all available articles, translated or not, to find every reference in the past eight months about amateur radioastronomer activity. There had been precious few items, and what scarce elements had been published in a small number of specialized reviews. Which made things all the easier to track down.

It was that information that Banning had collected and was able to present that morning, and he did so when, after a few minutes discussion other issues pertaining to this new crises, the DDO mentioned the amateur radio issue and gave him the chair of the meeting. Banning talked for about three minutes, outlining the fact that his research had turned up very few news articles pertaining to questions about Jupiter and some unusual radio activity in its vicinity. His talk finished, Banning remained for a few minutes until the DDO put a halt to the meeting, thanked him and sent him out.

Banning was not cleared for what was going to follow.

- Earth : CIA headquarters, Langley / Meeting Room -

Once Banning had exited the room, Killinger spoke up again.

"So it would seem that you got it right about radioastronomers, Mike." Killinger and Brennard were old acquaintances, and on friendly terms for the past decade or so.

"Nice to see it confirmed, but really, without GravNet it will take them a long time to put two and two together." Brennard answered.

Killinger nodded his consent. "Still, we cannot overlook the fact that some people at ESA are asking very specific questions. There appear to be one or two amateurs with deep pockets that could stumble over something big. What are we going to do about this ?"

Brennard was very controlled when he gave his answer : "The President was very clear ; I'm supposed to keep a lid on this."

Killinger thought out the various options that this answer gave him. "Do you mean a watertight lid, or a permanent lid ?"

"Let's keep it watertight for now. All we need is to avoid a propellerhead leaking something to the press for the next two to three months. Then the official agencies will have something worked out, and we will be able to let the cat out of the bag."

"Okay then. We can easily deal with most of the ESA scientists, but only if you give me the green for some explanations."

"That might prove a problem." answered Brennard, somewhat uneasy.

"Look, we're going to have to give them something to chew on if we expect them to do what we wish them to." Killinger said patiently.

"I know, Howard, but I am not allowed to give you permission to reveal anything about this." Brennard said, thoroughly uncomfortable now.

"Very well, Mike, we'll just have to go the black op way then." Killinger answered in a cold voice.

"What do you mean ?" Brennard asked slowly.

The answer came in one chilling word. "Kidnapping."

- Earth : Manchester, UK, The Guardian editorial office -

It was a bright, sunny Monday, and Edward Ringelstoke, editorialist, had just started the second part of his morning ritual - going through the letters that had arrived during the night. Except that, given that this was a Monday, the letters had been arriving since Saturday night. There was a nice stack of them, a lot of them boring as tea with your grandparents-in-law. It was not before 11 that Edward happened upon an envelope that had not been mailed, but dropped into the Guardian's mail pack manually. It was addressed to him, personally. His interest awakened, Edward opened the envelope and took a sip of his tepid tea while starting to read the typed letter.

It went as follows :

Mr. Ringelstoke,

I believe you might find it interesting to inquire as to the whereabouts of Mr. Heinrich Trüdelsturf, Director of the Max Planck Intitute for Radioastronomy in Bonn. You would also be well advised to wonder why Mr. Paulo Ekataran, a top-level radioastronomist working in the Firenze section of the Italian Radioastronomy Institute, is no longer answering his phone. And I believe that you definitely should find out why our own Mrs. Harriett Gingerlink, Head of Cambridge's Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, is nowhere to be found.

I greatly urge you to do your best in explaining why three top-level scientists in radioastronomy should be missing all at once and without any valid explanation or forenotice of their travel plans.

Yours truly,

A Worried Citizen

Edward had recieved his fair share of crackpot letters, but somehow this did not ring with the usual warning signs of the ordinary disturbed mind. The tone was hardly insulting, on the contrary, the author started as if he had a good joke for his recipient, then went off on a more conspiratorial tone. In any case, there was hard data in this letter, data that could be quickly verified. Edward gave it a moment's thought. If the names were real, these people were supposed to be important enough to not "disappear" without at least some official people knowing about it. So tracking down their absence should be easy enough, if the anonymous do-gooder was serious about his information.

And what could the simultaneous absence of three high-level radioastronomers bring as far as news was concerned ? They could be dead, in which case a possibly juicy murder story might emerge. They could be implicated in some internation scandal involving lost funds, or some other money scheme that had ultimately failed, in which case a juicy financial scandal might emerge. Or there could be some boring, incomprehensible scientific thing that had occured, in which case some nerd from the Guardian's Science Department would spend a few days trying to first understand the stuff well enough, then dumb it down enough for Joe Public to find an interest. Finally, Edward thought, it could be something else entirely, in which case the investigative efforts would more than likely be wasted entirely.

Oh well, such was life. And the potential for two headline-making articles made it somewhat worthwhile. Edward reached for the phone, and called Smithers from the hack pool. Smithers was the right type for this kind of job, Edwards thought to himself. Bright enough to get the data, good enough to keep a low profile for the case that it was all just a hare's chase.

Smithers came in, and Edward set about to show him the letter and explain to Smithers what needed to be done first : get a line on Mrs. Gingerlink. They both agreed that, if Mrs. Gingerlink was indeed missing, it would then be worth stirring up some help in Germany and Spain.

As Smithers walked out of his office, Edward Ringelstoke decided that his intuition was that the letter was genuine, and a major scandal headline was brewing. Somehow, he felt that Smithers was going to uncover something big.

Back to Chapter Two
Home        Index Chapter Four