Back to Chapter Three


by sharok rillk

Chapter Four : The Message

- Earth : ThreatNet HQ -

In the past few weeks, the compound had grown to an impressive size. Chief Commander Thomson's responsibilities had gone from being the top local bigwig to merely the first in line at the General's security meetings. Somehow, he was rather happy that he was not the one in charge of the mess that ThreatNet HQ had become.

Nowadays, there were no less than two thousand soldiers creating a very impressive military security ring around a complexe housing no fewer than three hundred scientists and operators (plus two hundred civilians brought along because of family ties), not to mention a few thousand square feet containing top secret scientific equipment. Several high-ranking officers had been brought on board at the General's request, and staff meetings were now an impressive array of shoulderboards. Catering to the security of three and a half thousand people was not a small matter. Especially when the security forces were just as dedicated to prevent anyone from leaving as they were to prevent anyone from entering.

When the General had made his first speech to the civvies and scientists assembled, there had been a strong current of resentment, and anger was not far underneath. But the double line of fully armed soldiers along each wall ensured that the people listened. That and the General's strong charisma. He hadn't bothered with much diplomatic nicities, nor had he neede to. When he came up on the hastily-erected stage, the first thing he did was present himself. His name brought a certain mollification among the assembly, as they realized that they were being held hostage under the orders of one of the most famous military men in recent history. The next thing he did was state, in no uncertain terms, what was at stake.

"Okay, ladies and gents, so now you know who brought you here. What you still don't know is why. Well I'm going to answer that straight away. You've been brought here because this defense program has hit the motherload of all gold mines. We have found proof of alien presence in our own Solar System. Yep, you heard me right ; the little green men are hiding around Jupiter, except that we don't have the slightest idea what they look like or what they want. It's your husbands and wives that have made this discovery possible, and your government doesn't want any word of this leaking out to the public. That is why I have been granted special executive permission to corral you all here and detain you. That's how it is, people, and I don't like any more than you do. But I like the alternative even less, and do you know what that is ? People talking. And when people talk about something as big as this, people invariably get it wrong. Then rumors will start flying higher than ducks during migrating season, and then what'll we get ?"

The General was pacing the stage now, his energy and commitment far too great to let him stand still.

"We'll get panick, that's what we'll get. Panick and looting and shooting on a national scale. Thousands dead by trampling, more thousands dead by gunshot, and millions running around like headless chickens, because nobody will know where to go, where is safe. The fact of it is, ladies and gents, I'm keeping you here against your will because that is the only thing that stands between sanity and madness. And if I have to keep you all locked up for a year, by God I will."

The General stopped his pacing, and faced the assembly. As he took stock of the emotions, he felt that his rather brutal assessment of the situation had been just the kind of thing needed to make the most unbelievable thing be accepted : that an alien civilization was present in Earth's immediate neighborhood. The people had just been dealt an uppercut to the chin, and they forgot anger and outrage as they tried to deal with the situation. Except that there wasn't really any rational way to deal with an alien presence. To be able to rationalize, one had to have experience in the matter at hand, and nobody had any experience of any kind with aliens. The General knew that he had crossed the first stage, in the coming days there would be resentment again, and maybe somone would do something foolish. He had to make sure that nobody would try.

"Very well, now listen up. This camp has a perimiter, which is guarded by soldiers and tanks. I want to be very clear on one point, anything that has barbed wire fences around it is not to be approached. The soldiers guarding fenced-in buildings have orders to shoot first, and not ask questions. Is that clear ?" Some people took the news calmly, but many faces started showing fear. "One last thing, obvious, but I suppose I have to say it anyway. You are not allowed to leave this compound, for whatever reason, by Presidential order. I wish to impress on each one of you that anyone in the zone around the perimiter will be shot. Make no mistake : my men have every necessary means of detection to find and terminate any individual coming or leaving, and they have orders to do just that. I will do what I can to make your stay as pleasant as possible, but I warn you, as much as it pains me to keep good American citizens locked up against their will, it would pain me even more to be responsible for nationwide panick and mayhem. Therefor, there will be no exceptions to the rule, and the rule is you stay here or you die. There, now that the unpleasantries have been clearly stated, are there any questions ?"

Chief Thomson remembered the moments that ensued as a textbook example of how a collective conscience tries to recover from a killing blow. There were a few moments of utter silence, followed by an eruption of wails, shouts and angry words. It is a tribute to McWinter's patriotic reputation that nobody even tried to lay a hand on him. That McWinter managed to placate the crowd in a mere twenty minutes, without calling on the men at his command to forcibly bring the people to their senses, is a rare example of charisma at work. Amid the shouts and cries, the General talked, promised, cajoled, and when the crowd had calmed down enough, he convinced and persuaded them to the point that he finally was able to joke with them at how the papers would take the President's head when all this became public. Thomson had winced at the terms used, but in the end the General was just making sure that the people were on his side - for the moment at least.

After the meeting, the people had gone to their air-conditioned bungalows, had discovered cable TV with a thousand channels and all the reruns you could possibly hope for, plus a nice living room and two or three rooms, following the size of the family to house. All these bungalows had been erected the week before their arrival, by many hundreds of workers. It was amazing what could be done in such a short time, when money was not an obstacle, thought Thomson. They had a library, a video club, a children's square and even an Olympic swimming pool (granted, set above ground in a metallic structure, but covered and air-conditioned). And nobody had to pay for anything, including the food. The washing was also taken care of, and dishwashers were in every bungalow.

Thus, although physically constrained, the people were living in a golden cage, and it only took a few days for the anger to melt away. Nobody had tried to get himself killed, and the soldiers were a constant reminder that it was no good to try. The soldier's barracks and mess halls were apart from the civvies, although they benefited from the same cable channels on their off time, so there was little interaction between the two groups. This had been intended by the General, as he did not want any chance of influence to break down the soldier's attitude. He had promised shoot to kill, and he was sure that if things stayed as they were, such orders would not be difficult to follow. But he knew full well that time and human interaction between prisoners and their guardians tended to muddy the waters, and the General did not make the mistake of blinding himself to the truth : he was running a scientific prison camp.

So Chief Commander Thomson found that he was quite happy with the sole responsibility of making the scientific part work. He did everything he could to make sure that his men and women took their duty seriously, while at the same time making sure that any complaint or bad attitude was correctly and quickly dealt with. Chief Thomson knew that resentment and frustration could not be allowed to build up, whatever the cost. He found that responsibility tiring enough. Especially with Doctor Richards. She was his key scientist, the only one who knew the theory behind the software, and one of the few who could code the theory correctly. But she still had a bitch of a character, and dealing with her had become only marginally easier.

Nevertheless, when his phone rang just before noon that day, and he picked it up to hear her voice call him to the server room, he kept his retort about lunch to himself, and went off to see whatever it was she wanted to show him, again.

Turns out she did have something to show him after all.

- Ganymede : Alien Fleet in Orbit -

The fleet assembled over Ganymede had not moved from its orbit for over six weeks now. The cargo vessels had kept regular rotations to the surface camp, which had grown to an impressive size with numerous large and smaller turrets dotting the structures. New activity was taking place though, and cargo vessels were now ferrying elements from the surface to orbit. These elements were weapons platforms, being placed in arrays for first-contact high-orbit defense. Soon, the entire moon would be sheathed in a metal fishnet, the points of which were ready to spout vast energies at a moment's notice.

The fleet and the base were bathing in the light of Jupiter, with another pair of cargo ships dropping silently to the moon's surface, when a disturbance manifested itself a few hundred kilometers from the fleet. The disturbance took the form of a flickering, slow at first, but in seconds it grew to encompass a volume of tens of thousands of cubic meters. In a few seconds, through the application of unknown physical laws, an entirely new armada appeared in the flickering volume, and space reverted to its normal form.

The new armada was deployed around a massive starship at its center. It was nearly two miles from bow to stern, five times the length of the biggest vessels of the first fleet. Shaped like a massive wedge, its tip was a hundred feet wide, and around fourty feet tall. Its tail was diamond-shaped, when viewed from behind, and was almost four thousand feet from tip to tip. Two smaller, but no less impressive replicas of the mother ship were in close formation, no more than a mile away, as if afraid to venture too far into the dangerous, radiation-filled environment.

All around these three floating cities were more smaller vessels. Many more vessels. Thousands of them. Ranging from a measly seven hundred feet or so in length, to titans in their own right, several thousand feet long.

And almost all of these thousands of ships sported some number of the same turrets, in various sizes, than the vessels of the first fleet. Thousands of ships, tens of thousands of turrets, adding up to unimaginable firepower. This overwhelming armada turned itself to face the puny fleet stationed over the moon, and moved to join it.

Reinforcements had arrived.

- Earth : ThreatNet HQ -

Chief Thomson was trying hard to keep up with an uncharacteristically buoyant Doctor Richards, who was excitedly showing him data from screen and various printouts simultaneously. She was babbling on about how, thanks to the vast additional processing power now available to her programs, she had managed to increase the resolution of the GravNet detection array by refining the analysis algorythm - effectively turning the whole array into the equivalent of a planet-wide optical mirror for a telescope. Except that it was not visible light that was being measured, but gravitons and their modulation in frequency.

Totally out of his depth, Chief Thomson nonetheless understood one thing while looking at the latest printout the Doctor had put in his hands : there were almost four dozen separate lines of data. And these lines were apparently supposed to be a very important evolution in the project.

"So, uh, this tells me that there are four dozen . . what ?" Thomson asked.

"Twenty-two distinct modulation bases." repeated Richards, "Which means that there are fourty-two alien ships over Ganymede !"

"And what's this ?" asked Thomson, pointing to several dips in some of the lines.

"Those are instances where the modulation is flooded by the the regional graviton signals."

Thomson gave her his best blank/confused stare.

"It means that, at that point, the ship has docked with the moon, and it becomes impossible to distinguish its gravitational signature." answered Richards impatiently.

"You mean that they're landing on Ganymede ?"

"No, the data says they're landing on Ganymede."

"But what for ?"

"How should I know ?" Susan shot back. What difference did it make anyway ? At more than six hundred million kilometers, it wasn't like anyone could do anything about it. "They're aliens, remember ? They might like to walk barefoot on lava, or roll over the ground." Susan was disgusted with him again. Such a childish mind, it was a wonder he managed to finish High School. How he had gotten a degree was anyone's guess, she thought, turning back to her screens.

Which suddenly flickered, all at once.

"Whoah !" Doctor Richards said, despite herself.

Chief Thomson looked up from the incomprehensible chart, and caught the look on the Doctor's face.

"What is it ? What's happening ?"

He looked at the screens, and, instead of organized (though obscure) data flowing in regular patterns, he saw jumbles of figures cascading down every screen, too fast to be properly seen. Then the printers kicked in, spewing forth page after page of log data as if a core dump had taken place. The only things that were not moving in the room were two humans, struck dumb by so much activity all at once.

Dotor Richards pulled herself out of it and jumped over to the printer. She took the current stack from the log output and placed it on the table tray next to the printer, where she frantically tried sorting the pages by reverse order. After bunching up the first five pages, she started pooring over the data to get an idea of what was going on. At that moment, the phone range.

Thomson picked it up immediately. "Thomson." he barked.

"Morse here, Sir. GravNet's gone nuts again. I've got a reading of . ." the Lieutenant paused as he controlled the screen again, "more than a hundred billion tons now."

"Right, we've got a situation here. I'll get back to you when I know more." Thomson hung up without waiting for an answer. He walked over to the Doctor's side.

"What is all this ?" he asked. The screens were still spewing data at an appalling rate, followed closely by the printers.

Doctor Richards looked up from the pages and turned to him, her face whiter than usual. "The data streams have been demultiplied. The system's trying to count them."

"You mean there's more aliens now ? How many ?"

Richards looked at the bottom of a page. "One thousand two hundred fourty-nine, and counting." she said, almost not believing it herself.

"Holy shit." Thomson said, rushing to the phone. He punched the quickdial button and, as soon as the Lieutenant had picked it up he yelled "Get the General over here on the double !" and slammed the phone back down. Having done that, he rushed back to the Doctor's side, to try and make sense of the figures on the pages.

Doctor Richards felt like her mind was going to blow a fuse. She was collating the data as fast as she could, and the figures were abominable. The processors were struggling to integrate all the streams without duplicating the already voluminous data, and the results being printed pointed to a massive increase in the number of vessels and the overall mass of the alien presence over Ganymede. If she was right, the system had so far tallied almost one thousand five hundred vessels, for an incredible five hundred billion tons of additional mass.

There was only one way anyone could explain such a massive infusion. Susan Richards felt her knees go weak. She sat down and buried her head in her hands. "Oh my God." she started whispering. "They're coming."

McWinter strode in only a scant few minutes after the Chief's hurried call, followed by his orderly scurrying behind him. Somehow, he had already been on his way when Lieutenant Morse had managed to alert him of the problem. It did not take the pair long to complete the trip, and when they got to the monitoring station the Lieutenant had quickly led them to the server room.

As they entered, they saw a rare spectacle : Doctor Richards and Chief Thomas both sitting on the floor, a sea of paper scattered around them. They both looked up, and Chief Thomson jumped to his feet as fast as he could.

"So ? What's up ?" asked the General curtly.

"Sir, we have more incoming . ." Thomson started, but Richards cut him off.

"General, I managed to do what you wanted. GravNet can now count the enemy ships." Susan's pride at her accomplishment allowed her to keep a steady voice. "Before the crisis, I was monitoring fourty-two alien vessels. I was just showing the results to the Chief here when the system went into overdrive."

"So they were fourty-two. Then what happened ?"

"Well, GravNet has now completed the preliminary analysis of the new situation. If my code is correct, we are looking at a new total of three thousand vessels, for more than a trillion metric tons of mass." Doctor Richards stated the figures almost tonelessly.

Despite himself, the Lieutenant gave a short whistle of awe. Remembering where he was, he shut his mouth and turned bright red with embarrassment.

But the General only smiled, although a bit tightly. "Indeed. Three thousand ships, a trillion tons. Those are heavy numbers, Doctor. Are you sure of them ?"

"I will be when the code has finalized the confirmation procedure." Susan looked at her watch. "That should be in about another fourty minutes."

McWinter looked at all the paper on the floor. "Very well Doctor. You have one hour to get the data confirmed and the necessary documentation together. After that, you're coming with me." He turned to leave, his orderly preceding him outside the room.

"Where are we going ?" asked Richards, still sitting on the floor, a dozen printouts in her hands.

McWinter stopped next to the door. "To see the President, obviously." he said, and left, trailing his orderly behind.

Back in his office, McWinter asked everyone to leave. When he was alone, he turned to the safe that he had had installed in the back of the room. He typed in the code, and the safe door clicked and opened. He reached inside, and withdrew two things that he put on the table.

The first thing was a small box with a switch on top, and a small LCD screen. The other was his mobile phone. He first turned his attention to the box, and flipped the switch. The LCD screen lit up, and displayed the various starting messages to confirm that its integrity was valid, and that it was starting to emit its scrambling noise. What was neat with the box is that it emitted frequencies that human ears cannot hear, but that play havoc with any sound-based recording device, rendering it useless while the box is functioning.

Of course, that meant that no mobile phone could function in its immediate vicinity - except ones which had been specially tuned to separate the noise from the sound of a voice, like the General's phone. It had been calibrated to filter the noise from the specific box that was now flooding the room. The General keyed the phone on with a special code (no mistake allowed, the phone would blow up if the wrong key was entered),

Back to Chapter Three