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by sharok rillk

Chapter Six : 72 hours

- Earth : Allen Telescope Array, California, USA -

Hazad was still angry. He had found his supervisor at the coffee machine, talking with Theodore Armbruster, a code jocky that had, in Hazad's view, an entirely inflated notion of his own worth. He broke into the conversation without any concern of how it would be accepted, he was too mad for that. It must have shown because neither of them decided to take offense, rather, they both questioned him on what his problem was.

Gritting his teeth, Hazad put a clamp on his rising blood pressure and told both of them that their prank was quite childish. It took another minute to get to the bottom of the issue, but when Rachel realized that there was a message on the Green Screen (the nickname had been given in respect of tradition - after all, it's always Little Green Men, right ?), she forgot all about coffee, anger, and lunch, and bolted to the Control Center, closely followed by Theo.

Hazad was left bewildered for a second, until his mind caught up with her behavior. When he realized what he had just witnessed, his jaw dropped. With his mouth still open, he started walking mechanically back to his station.

Back in the room, the atmosphere was calm in appearance, but very tense underneath. With only a cursory glance at the words still forming on the screen, Rachel had started inputting instructions to pinpoint the source of the transmission. Theodore, in a display of professionalism greater than Hazad would have given him credit for, was already scanning other frequencies for parallele transmissions. Both scientists were concentrating intensly, and Hazad felt a bit useless. He did not know of anything he could do to help. So he read the text again.













When Hazad finished reading, Rachel was skimming over the text also. Theodore announced abruptly that the transmission had finished, and started verifying the recording.

"This has to be a joke, right ?" Hazad asked, not at all sure of himself.

Rachel glanced at the control screen, where some numbers had just started flashing. "If it is, it's a pretty good one. Triangulation has just pinpointed the source of the transmission. It's been sent from somewhere around Jupiter."

Theodore turned to Rachel, then stared at the message. Hazad started to feel weak in the knees, and in the stomach. Somehow, he managed to keep standing and not throw up. He looked at Rachel, who was reading the message once again. "We have to tell someone, don't we ?" he asked.

"I agree." said Theodore, standing up. He seemed very much in control of himself, to Hazad's dismay. His dislike of the man increased even more. "We need to tell someone right away." Theodore added.

"I know." Rachel cut the discussion short. She knew her boss's number by heart, and picked up the nearest phone. Punching in the numbers, she gave Theodore instructions for transmitting the message. Theodore sat down again, and started to ready the backup for transfer.

They all waited in silence.

- Earth : the White House, USA -

It had taken all of twenty minutes, but Senator Brennard had finally managed to get the President to arrange an emergency meeting. Still steaming from the delay, Mike Brennard waited in front of the Oval Office for Lyndall to arrive from the Honor Room, where he was entertaining an important foreign guest - whatever that meant. Finally, President Lyndall showed up, unfazed by this change in schedule, but slightly ticked by the hassle of rearrangements that would inevitably be required down the line. Even a seasoned politician can yearn for a bit of predictability every now and then. The expression of the Chief Defense Advisor could have put an end to any sarcastic comment, but Lyndall had immediately grasped the significance of Brennard's request and he himself was hardly in the mood for wisecracking. The two men entered the Oval Office with grim faces.

The door was hardly shut when Brennard turned to the President and said "Sir, they have initiated contact." and he handed his President a printed paper.

"How ? What is . . ." Lyndall's voice trailed off as he read through the words. After a few seconds, he looked up to his Advisor. "This is ridiculous. Are you sure it's true ?"

Brennard nodded. "I know, it sounds corny, but we have confirmation from NASA and the site that captured the transmission. This text was sent from the immediate vicinity of Jupiter. It was sent by them. Just because the wording is outdated and the signature looks like it could have come from a bad 60s sci-fi flick does not remove the importance of the act itself. They are requesting contact, formally and diplomatically."

"That is indeed a relief." Lyndall replied, still not quite over the quaintness of the text.

"But we have another problem." added Brennard.

"What ?" Lyndall, moving toward his office chair, stopped and turned back again.

"They broadcasted practically in clear text. We have no way of knowing how many people have intercepted the transmission outside of our own Allen array."

Lyndall sat in his chair, a quizzical look on his face.

"We have a telescope array that analyses radio emissions from space." explained Brennard patiently. "This is a ULTA, an Ultra Large Telescope Array comprising about a hundred 8-meter dishes. It is extremely precise, and it received the broadcast in clear about an hour ago."

"An hour ?! And it took you this long to tell me about it ?" Lyndall was more shocked than outraged at this delay - conveniently forgetting that he was responsible for at least thirty minutes of delay himself.

"Well, sir, it took a bit of time to confirm the origin, but most of the time was taken up in confirming that the message was not a hoax." Brennard lied smoothly. The truth was that it had taken twenty minutes for the on-site team just to stir up enough courage to make the call. Ever since the beginning of Mankind's efforts to find alien life, everyone had always presumed that it would be under the form of complicated, mathematical transmissions. No one had ever even dreamed that the aliens would just show up and basically send a fax - in plain English. Then again, it had always been thought that contact would be made from across the galaxy, not from the middle of our own solar system.

If the President did not believe the last statement, he chose not to show it and re-read the text more carefully. "So, this is exactly how it was sent ?" he asked.

"Yes sir, in plain English." confirmed Brennard.

"CNN is going to go ape over this." Lyndall remarked tiredly.

"Well, that's the curious thing ; no news station has moved on this yet." Brennard said.

"Ah ?" said Lyndall, looking up again.

"Well, sir, if they had gotten a whiff of this, we'd be swamped with reporters right now, no ?" Brennard said, with a smile that said just how little he looked forward to that kind of thing.

"Hmm, you may be right, but this is only a delay. We're going to have to say something about it, if only to justify a UN meeting." stated Lyndall.

Brennard knew that Lyndall was right. There would be all sorts of issues to sort out before a formal declaration could be made, and then pure chaos would break out when the population at large was alerted to the fact that aliens not only existed, but were practically waiting on our doorstep. And the text mentioned 72 hours. This was going to be a nightmare come true.

In spite of the shock, Lyndall was rather relieved. The aliens, wait, the Stellar Imperium (might as well start thinking about them in the correct diplomatic terms) was declaring peaceful intent - twice. An interstellar war just might be avoidable. For a few seconds, President Lyndall reflected on whether or not the avowed intent of the Imperium showed them to be any more wise than humans could have been in the same position. Then, Lyndall suddenly realized that the Imperium could very well be setting them up, lulling them into a false sense of security with reassuring words, like a farmer with an axe in hand talks to the doomed chicken . But they had no real choice, did they ? If the aliens were dominating warriors of great guile and cunning, evil in their ways and with unimaginable power at their disposal, well, that was it, right ? Right. Lyndall decided to continue as had been agreed at the last meeting on this subject : by considering that the Imperium was willing to negociate. There was just one other issue to clear up before going forward.

"This is the whole text, right ?" asked the President.

"Yes sir, it's all there." replied Brennard.

"So what events are in motion ?"

Brennard shook his head helplessly. "I haven't got the faintest idea. Nobody can guess at what they mean, but we obviously haven't asked everyone we could yet."

Lyndall leaned back in his chair. "Do so. Find out now. We need to know whatever there is to know about these events. Try keeping it quiet, though. Even if it'll all be over in less than three days,  there's no need to draw undue attention to it, right ?"

"Yes, Mr. President." Brennard nodded dutifully. The message was cristal clear : keep this under wraps as long as possible. Looked like some high-level radioastronomers were going to stay missing for a few days more.

Brennard dismissed himself from the Oval Office as the President took a phone and called in his political advisors. Brennard was glad to be able to avoid the next meeting. What was going to happen was an hour of brainstorming on how the White House was going to spin this to the public - an exercise Brennard despised. He always had been a man of action, capable of taking hard decisions. With that mindset, it was always difficult for him to sit on a meeting where the true agenda was not National Security, but keeping the agenda on track for the President's reelection. Brennard had seen the workings of the White House over a few Presidents now, and although Lyndall was not the worst, he was still a politician at the core. Sighing, Brennard reached his office and closed the door. As he sat in his chair, Brennard reflected that politics were going to get a massive shakeup in the coming days. Maybe something good would come out of it.

- Earth : somewhere in Paris, France -

Smithers was on the run. For the first time in his life, he was genuinely scared. This job had started out normally, but it had gone way beyond anything he'd ever seen before. He had quickly obtained confirmation that Mrs Gingerlink and Mr. Trüdelsturf  (the heads of major radioastronomy institutes in England and Berlin) were indeed unreachable, information which he had duly phoned in to his editor, Ringelstoke. They had agreed that it was worth confirming, and he had set off through the Chunnel to Firenze, Italy, for a trip that he had expected long and boring.

It had been anything but that.

Everything had been normal until he arrived at the station in Paris. He had collected his luggage and gotten off, submitting to the weary trek through the endless tunnels from one line to another in the local version of the Underground. He found the line to Gare d'Austerlitz and hopped on a tram. A man with a tan brown leather coat was among the numerous other passengers that boarded the tram, but he was the only one that boarded on the other end of the cabin and turned in Smithers' direction. Smithers did not see him.

When the tram arrived at the train station, Smithers descended with the throng. Casting his eyes about for the proper exit, he saw the man in the leather coat descend on the other end of the cabin, but did not really notice him. Smithers went in the direction of the stairs that lead to the train boarding area. His shadow had no trouble following him unobtrusively.

The accessways of Paris Underground are like all metro stations the world over. Digging tunnels costs money and takes time, both of which are never in enough supply to do a really comfortable job. Thus, the passageways are tight, winding affairs where people without luggage typically despise those who drag the enormous blocks on wheels that stop up the foot traffic. On the other hand, the frequent jostling is a boon to pickpockets and other lowlifes, who can frequently use their sleigh-of-hand to good effect - as long as they accomplish their act away from the surveillance cameras.

Smithers had never paid great attention to the location of surveillance cameras in the Paris Underground. He knew the London Underground a lot better, but here he was out of his depth. He had therefor no way of knowing that he was approaching an area without any surveillance. He might have noticed that his shadow was maneuvering to close the distance between them, but he had no inkling he was being followed, nor any reason to guess he might be. The other man was confident and at ease. His target was unwary, and a dark zone was coming up. The other people were of no consequence, nobody would see what was going to happen, and by the time somebody got a clue, he would be long gone. He was now barely two meters behind his target. He was within killing range.

As Smithers and his killer reached a curb in the tunnel, a commotion started right in front of him. A musician had set up shop at that point, and while Smithers and his group of fellow travellers came upon the man sitting with his guitar, a traveller arrived at that same point from the other side, going the other way. In ordinary circumstances, the three groups would have quickly overcome the slight bottleneck engendered by this situation, but the circumstances were not ordinary. Jezabel Moreno was a portly woman by any standards. She was also late, sweating and dragging a rather large suitcase behind her, suitcase that had lost a wheel five minutes earlier in the latest of a series of infernal stairs. Jezabel was French, but not from Paris, and she was one of those who did not like Paris at all and loathed having to go there. So, when she saw the musician sitting in the tight hallway, her temper (already sorely tested by the many stairs and suitcase dragging) rose to dangerous heights, but seeing that she had just enough space to inch by, she held herself in check and readied herself to pass him by with the utmost expression of disgust that only the French are capable of. However, on arriving to his level and finding that there were at least fifty people coming her way, she snapped.

Turning on the musician, blocking the rest of the corridor with her luggage, she started raining down expletives and abuse on the man. Now, any person finding himself unjustly on the wrong end of a torrent of wrath is going to feel somewhat irked, but this man was a lowly musician, had nothing to do with the lady and her problems, and moreover, he was French as well. So he quickly escalated the matter with a stream of invictives of his own. Meanwhile, Smithers and his group were brought to an abrupt halt, which, as all travellers know, imposes bumps and close encounters and treasures of effort from all people involved to avoid touching anyone else, thing that people in tunnels have a distinct aversion of.

Thus it happened that Mr. Leather unwittingly uncovered himself before actually striking his target.

When the jostling halt occured, he happened to have his knife in hand, ready to strike. The blade was composite, black, dull and discreet, perfect for a crowd job and undetectable by metal detectors. It was going to be a clean cut and his victim (he only knew Smithers by a picture, names are rarely given in his line of business) would die instantly. Except that the jostling got his knife noticed. Someone yelled and suddenly he was in the middle of an enlarging circle of emptiness. He was now highly visible, as was the knife he had in his hand.

Smithers, hearing the yell, didn't understand the words, but danger is an emotion that is easily transmitted and he turned to see what was happening. He saw a man holding a knife, looking not at the crowd, but right at him. And he saw his death in the eyes of the man, who lunged at him from barely four feet away.

As if in slow motion, Smithers saw the man lunge at him and thought "he wants to kill me". Shock. Kill me. Journalist. Why ? Who ? His brain kicking back in gear, he managed to summon his reflexes and, somehow, sidestepped the thrust that would have gored his heart, half-pushing, half-falling on someone in the process. A woman screamed.

From somewhere in the crowd, a young, sturdy man decided that this was enough. He was a karate blackbelt, freshly graduated to his 2nd Dan. The situation was clear enough : some thug was attacking an unarmed person. He would put a stop to this. He stepped into the fray, and started attacking the man with the knife. Mr. Leather was recovering from his missed strike, cursing his lack of luck. Not only had he lost the element of surprise, but he had also managed to miss the target. He knew he had mere seconds before he would have to call it quits. The unexpected assault from his right side took him completely by surprise.

The young man landed two solid blows in the agressor's flank, and the man grunted in pain. What happened next went very fast, and nobody actually saw anything. Contrary to the young blackbelt, Mr. Leather did not have extensive martial arts training, but he was street savvy and could take a few hits without losing his wits. Dropping his knife into his left hand, he ducked the next blow to his head that would have undoubtedly knocked him unconscious and, pivoting his body to increase the strength of the blow, drove his knife into the young man's stomach. The blade went in right up to the hilt. The young man's eyes opened wide with shock, and he fell to the ground clutching his midsection.

The killer now had a bright red blade in his hand, the blood dripping. Smithers had seen the young man, his confidence, his skill, and his rapid defeat. He knew he had only one chance. He jumped over the guitar player and started running. The others in the corridor turned and fled the scene with shouts and cries. Jezebel stood in shock, screaming with her hands in front of her face. The musician simply sat there, too stunned to move.

His prey on the move, the killer knew that he had only one choice. He put his bloody knife back in its sheath and started running after Smithers, jumping over the guitarist like his prey before him. The chase was on.

Smithers ran like the very hounds of Hell were on his heels, which was, in a sense, true. Smithers had always been in proper physical shape, not given to stuffing himself with junk food or drinking himself to a stupor. He was a natural ascete, a sort of monk with a personal religion of fitness. While his collegues invariably saw their waistline expand with the years, Smithers could still fit in the same suits he had ten years ago, and could run a mile without breaking a sweat. His disposition towards leading a healthy physical life would be the thing that saved his life. He knew he could probably match whatever speed his enemy had, and he could most probably run just as long as well. Better, he had the luxury of being able to call a cop - he only needed to see one. His real problem was that navigating the Underground in a foreign country was hard enough to do when you had all the time you needed - it was exponentially harder when you were running for your life with a killer on your heels. Smithers ran, and prayed he would not make a mistake, take a wrong turn that would cost him his life. He knew he couldn't fight worth a damn. If he was cornered, or merely caught up with, it was game over.

Smithers thought of that while running, and pumped his legs faster than he ever had.

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