Brian W. Antoine
September 3, 1993
The TomCat sat on the runway waiting clearance. Her pilot went over his checklist one final time, considering his mission as he did so. This was a mission unlike any he'd been assigned to before, and in a way it sounded a little ludicrous to him.
Major Dave "Badger" Bellotti was an Air Force Academy graduate and a combat veteran of Viet Nam. He'd flown the F-4 Phantom on raids both over Southern and Northern Viet Nam. An Ace, he could claim six MiG fighters. He was a comer in the Corporation, and his future looked bright. He'd flown missions for the Special Ops group on a number of occasions, but this one was a doozie.
The pre-flight briefing was asking him to take his ship to its service ceiling, and any extra altitude he could milk out of it, and to use a special pod-mounted device to scan objects in low orbit. He was looking for an aircraft capable of space flight. Of itself, that wasn't too peculiar. The fact that he was looking for a ship that could cloak itself made him feel like the Brass he reported to had watched a few too many episodes of Star Trek.
* * *
"Bob, what are we doing up here?" Asked Penny.
"We're doing a little house cleaning."
"I don't get it. You've asked me to identify and plot courses to each of the objects I find in low orbit, but you haven't told me why."
I had to giggle at that. "I'm going to justify a much larger defense budget."
* * *
"Badger, you're cleared for takeoff. Winds are 010 at 3 knots, altimeter is niner-two point six."
"Roger, Badger is rolling."
The TomCat lifted off the runway six seconds later. The Major plowed his throttles to WEP, War Emergency Power, and went ballistic. Twelve seconds after he applied throttle, he was searing the sky through seven thousand feet and settling into the seat. As his fighter climbed ever higher, the sky turned from a clear blue to almost black. The ship was nearing 12 miles straight up when the fire in his pipes died. He dropped the nose and reached down to his side console to engage the weapons systems. This trip his stores revealed a tracking device instead of the usual compliment of Sidewinders and 20mm shells. He engaged the scanning device that was slung under the swept wing of his fighter and thumbed up Control Frequency.
"Watcher, Searcher. The eye is looking."
"Roger that, Searcher. Maintain as long as you can."
"Roger, Watcher. Searcher out."
As the TomCat began its gliding descent back to terra ferma, the sophisticated electronics under his wing scanned the skies.
* * *
"Dead ahead. Looks like a RORSAT."
"I see it, Penny. Thanks."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to knock it down."
"Another one? Brian isn't going to like this."
"Sure he will. Brian likes everything I do."
"He didn't think much of you bringing your cat to his house. He was pretty fond of that fish."
"Jab was hungry. He didn't understand that Gertrude had meaning to Brian."
"So Brian doesn't like everything you do."
"Well, he sure didn't like what the cat did. I'll give you that one."
Penny didn't respond. I knew she wasn't mulling it over, her speed of thought had multiplied itself by at least five magnitudes since she evolved. The being that had only last week been a small child was now a maturing young woman, and a damn smart one. So she wasn't thinking about me, but was probably rotating through her various access paths to see if anyone was paying attention to what we were doing.
* * *
The growler in the TomCat starting its grating noise, alerting the pilot that he had a target identified. His threat display showed negative, but there was definitely something out there.
"Watcher, I have a bogey." The Major was a bit surprised. His CRT showed the heat signature of a vehicle above him by about 70 miles, but his high resolution video, trained on the same spot in the sky revealed nothing.
"Roger, Searcher. Confirm it's not an echo."
"Negative on the echo, Watcher. I count two objects, one visible and the other isn't. Spectrograph readings don't appear like any I've ever seen, so I don't think we have a man made object."
"Explain, Searcher. Are we looking at a natural object?"
"Negative. I'm tracking course corrections which don't correspond to any natural object I've ever heard of."
"And you say the object is converging on SS1041?"
"Roger that, Watcher. Confirm. Target is two miles from the Surveillance Satellite and closing quickly.. Wait one... target is... Watcher, the object just collided with the spacecraft."
"Searcher, we confirm. SS1041 has just terminated operations. Try and get a vector on that bogey and report speed and direction."
"Negative, Watcher. The object just disappeared from my scans."
"It's gone, I tracked a slight turn, mild acceleration, and now it's just gone."
"Return to base, Searcher."
In the control room for the mission, the console operator leaned back in his chair and looked at the member of the General Staff. "It's been like this for the better part of the last 24 hours. Something up there is having a field day with the spacecraft, and we have no way to track it."
"Son of a Bitch!" Said the General.
In his lab under Antoine Peak, Brian was monitoring the It, and was saying much the same thing.
"So what the hell is he up to?" I'd spotted the It on the global tracking system when I had stopped in to check on Penny. The thing had just enough magical components to register on the sensor net I had created. "You're sure he knows what he's doing?"
"Yes, he explained it to me and I believe him."
"You're sure it wasn't another of his con jobs? He can be pretty sneaky when he wants to. While you're getting better, you can still be fooled by someone familiar with your true nature. Hell, I even get away with it sometimes when your not expecting it."
"No, this felt like the truth." I turned and stared at the monitor on the far wall. "Don't look at me like that. I said it felt like the truth and it did."
After this last expansion, Penny had started to do more than just emulate emotional responses. She was still settling into her new home, but she sounded more life like all the time. "Ok, I'll take your word for it." I looked at the hologram suspended above the fire pit in the living area. The It was making the final maneuvers needed to intercept yet another satellite. One small corner of the wall monitor showed a high resolution image of the F-14 that was tracking his movements from below.
"And he knows he's being watched?"
"Yes he does. When we were searching through the various networks trying to find any signs of you. He spotted something in the DDN that made him curious. You're watching the results."
"So what the hell is he doing?"
"He asked me not..."
"...not to tell me. Yeah, so you've told me already. Shit, what was he expecting? The cloak around the ship will keep its physical presents hidden, but he's low enough in the atmosphere to be leaving an ionization trail a child could follow." I looked at the sensor net again. "What's his current altitude?"
"82 miles and he's just matching orbits."
"Traveling that low isn't an orbit. I'd be willing to bet that they are tracking him via the heat signature that the It is leaving as it tunnels through what atmosphere there is at that altitude. At the speed he's moving you might be able to spot the afterglow on a dark night." I just sat and watched the monitors and hoped I could spot something that might give me a clue as to what he was up to this time.
On the sensor net, I watched as the blip that represented the satellite merged with the blip from the It. A few seconds later, the It took off into deep space, the satellite no where in sight. "He's got it."
"And just what the hell is he doing with them?"
"He asked me not..."
"Yeah, yeah. I've heard it already. And if I really asked you to tell me?"
"I'd tell you. But until you do, I'd trust that Bob wouldn't do anything to screw with your security."
"I do trust him, that's the problem. He should know by now that if he blows things for me, he hurts you too. Somehow I don't think he's willing to take a chance with that anymore."
"I'll take your word for it. I didn't get to see the expression on his face when you returned."
I put on my best inscrutable look and turned to face the vault. "Trust me, I don't believe he thinks of you as just a computer any more. I'd be careful around Karen though. She has funny ideas about other females messing with her husband."
"Phhhhhbbbbbttttttt... I think I'll go back to sorting through my memories of my fifth year."
"You do that. Who knows when you might be needed at your full capacity to help straighten out something." I watched the monitor as it showed the F-14 pilot give up tracking Bob and head for home. "Who knows indeed."
"Bob, my sensors show that the air force jet has landed. I don't think they're scanning you anymore. At least for now."
"Ok, Penny. Thanks."
"You don't seem upset that they were looking at you."
"I'm not. Why do you think I kept dropping into the atmosphere shell between pickups?"
"I think I understand."
"I bet you do." I winked at the image Penny had on my screen.
"Should I say thanks?"
"Nope. No need, Penny. This is what friends are for. Now, how many more of the spacecraft are at 250 miles or less?"
"I plot 300 more at that altitude limit."
"Ok, let's get back to work."
Penny sent me off to link up with another of the orbiting craft. As we were maneuvering towards it, Penny gave me a satellite view of the others I'd already picked up. They made a slow curving line from the planet, but each one moved at a slight oblique towards the outside of the galaxy.
Mount Palomar is used for general astronomic observation, but the Jet Propulsion Labs had reserved its use. Inside the domed building was a collection of men and women. Some wore uniforms, and some didn't. They all had come to discuss some perplexing developments. They milled around speaking in small groups until a Major General called their attention.
"Ladies and Gentlemen. If I can have your attention please?" The room quieted. "We have set up a visual display in the conference room. If I could get you to move inside and take your seats, we can get ourselves started.
The people filed into the room just to the West of the telescope chamber. Inside was a series of tables, pushed together to form a 'U' shape. There were chairs on each side. The people each found empty seats and sat in them, turning their attention to the Major General who now stood at a podium to the right of a large screen television.
"Thanks for coming on such short notice." He said. "All of you are aware of why we've called this mission, so I'll skip the basics and just say that we're here to determine what it is we have our hands on.. Or should I say we don't have our hands on."
There was a murmur from the crowd, and then the General continued. "We have a graphical representation of what we've been able to learn so far. So before we go on, let's take a look at it."
The television brightened, and its six foot screen showed a downward looking view of earth. The planet was surrounded by course plots of the many satellites in orbit. As the animation played out, it was plain that the satellite's were being pushed towards space with great precision. Each of the satellite's was on a course and speed that caused them to collide with the sun. So even though it looked like they were just being pushed into space, a time-lapse view demonstrated that care was taken to have them leave the plane of the elliptic in such a fashion to guarantee that rendezvous.
Every face showed great concern, and none of them spoke for a few moments. Then they all started speaking at once.
* * *
"Ok, Penny, how many are left?"
"Six less than the last time you asked me."
I wasn't amused. Well, maybe I was a little amused. "Wise ass."
She chuckled. "There are another 94. Oh, and I think our friend is about to come up for another look-see at you."
"That's fine. Distance to target?"
"About two thousand yards."
* * *
"Searcher, this is Watcher. Say altitude, over."
"Watcher is at flight level 65 and still climbing."
"Roger, your bogey is still in motion, at one o'clock."
"Watcher, Searcher is Tally-Ho. I have the bogey's heat trail. I'm going to engage the pod."
* * *
"Distance to target, Penny?"
"About 50 yards Bob. You're right on the mark."
I sat at my desk and watched the display register yet another satellite go missing. For the last couple of days, Bob had been taking the It out during his spare time, and had slowly stealing every spysat in LEO that he could find. At first I'd thought he knew what he was doing. After the hundredth satellite vanished, I knew he was nuts.
"Ok, enough is enough. I'll bet most of the people in the Pentagon are bald by this time. They have to be going crazy trying to figure out what the hell is swiping their satellite's."
"Huh?" I swung my chair around to face the screen on the wall. "And just how would you know?" I didn't get quite the answer I'd expected.
"Shit.... Uh, well, you see... Bob kind of asked me to make sure that they knew he was up there."
"Great! What did you do, send them a letter with the lab listed as the return address?"
"Not quite, but I did arrange for some data files to pop up in the right place at the right time."
Now I really came unglued. "WHAT! What data files? What's that got to do with Bob?"
"Excuse me, I'm having interface problems with the..." And all I heard was static in the speaker.
I got up and walked over to the vault door and started opening it. "You're going to have more problems then just a little speech glitch in a minute. Cut the shit and get me a channel open to Bob. I want some answers, and I want them now!"
"Uh, you can sit down. The problem is fixed."
I stopped with the opening sequence and stared at the door. "That's what I thought. Now get that channel open to Bob." I took a second or two for her to get Bob on the line. According to the sensor display, he was just about to grab yet another satellite and his shadow was once again watching him from below.
"Yeah, what is it? I'm kind of busy at the moment."
"You're going on vacation until further notice. Stop right where you are."
"No shit." I sat down in my chair and switched on the visual link. I looked at the vault door and the screen where Bob was staring back at me. "Ok, which one of you wants to tell me what the hell is going on" and I leaned back in my chair and waited.
Penny started up first. "I'm sorry Bob, he didn't want to let it drop this time."
"It's ok. Have you told him?"
"No, this is the first time he has come straight out and asked me. I don't think I'm going to like his reaction when he finds out what I did."
Huh, did I miss something? "What do you mean?"
"Ok, I'll tell him. Me he can't carve up into small chunks."
I growled at the video. "Don't fucking bet money on it..."
"What do you know of what Penny did while you were gone?"
I thought about it for a moment. "Nothing but what you told me when I got back. What's that got to do with your stealing satellite's?"
"Well... It seems like your sister here; it is 'sister' isn't it?"
"That's probably as close a guess as any."
"Well, your sister went a little nuts during her search for clues to your whereabouts and might have gotten a little clumsy."
I had a bad feeling I knew where this was headed now. "Penny?"
"It wasn't all my fault! Besides, they already knew something odd was going on. Oops, shit..."
I cradled my head in my arms and rested them on my desk. "Ok, how bad is it?" Penny wasn't saying anything, so Bob spoke up for her.
"Penny didn't notice it at the time, but I spotted a couple of reports from the Deep Space Tracking Network that showed them tracking an object moving at high speed out of the Solar System. When I thought about the dates, I realized they had been tracking the Sunbeam during one of your test flights. The report ended with an estimated launch point of the Lunar Farside or close Lunar Orbit."
"That's just great. A one in a million chance that they notice one of the few flights I made before the cloaking system was installed, and they manage to spot me. What else could go wrong..." I could hear Bob clear his throat. "Something else did?"
"In her dash through the DDN, Penny didn't take a lot of care in covering her tracks."
"That's the other shoe. We're screwed..."
Now Penny piped up again. "Not yet, they couldn't trace me back to the lab because of the hyperlinks. They did however manage to trace it back to somewhere in the Eastern Washington or Idaho area. That's where Bob comes in."
What else could go wrong? "And naturally the way to hide out and hope things blow over is to start stealing satellite's? Makes perfect sense to me. Would you please wake me when the federal marshals get here. I'm going to take a couple of aspirin and rest. I've got a headache you wouldn't believe."
"Actually, you're not to far off" came Bob's reply from the video link. "The way I figure it, we need to give them something to distract them from searching for you. They probably think it is another cracker playing around with his home computer again."
I was busy trying to pry the lid off the damn childproof container and wasn't paying a whole lot of attention. "Ok, so what has that to do with your trying to single handily cleanup LEO?"
"Well..." I stopped arguing with the bottle. I recoqnized that tone of voice. "What did you do?"
"Well, I had Penny make one more trip into the DDN to specifically access the DSN event records and try to erase that trace log of your flight. She deliberately failed, and allowed them to trace it just long enough to make them believe that the same person was involved in both cases."
I could here him laughing to himself over the link. "You should have seen the reaction. The Pentagon, NSA and a whole slew of agencies I've never even heard of now believe that; and get this... 'We are under surveillance by aliens and they don't like our satellites'." Now I could hear him laughing himself silly.
"Pretty good idea wasn't it boss."
I sat in my chair and thought about it for a moment. Was the US Government really that stupid? I looked over at the monitor that showed the F-14 straining to track Bob in the It. Yeah, they just might be. "Have they been doing anymore searching for the endpoint of the network interface?"
"Yes, and I'm leaving them a trail that should lead them to one of the old unused communications satellites that's still in orbit. Bob and I both think that they will assume that it was used by the 'aliens' to tap into the DDN from a ground tap I'm putting where they will find it."
As screwy as it sounded, it might just work. From what I could see on the monitor, the AirForce was sure trying like hell to figure out what was going on. "So, you want them to believe in aliens huh."
"That's the general idea. It's something they have at least a little proof of now and they don't dare ever make it public."
Bob was still laughing to himself and somehow I knew that most of this had to be his idea. Tweaking the Governments nose was something he wouldn't have been able to pass up. "Mind if I join in the fun?"
Bob didn't stop laughing, but at least he was making less noise. "What have you got in mind?"
"Oh no. Fair is fair. You'll find out about it shortly." I grabbed a scratch pad and did some rough figuring. "Ok, just make sure you don't vanish from their tracking scopes for another 15 minutes or so."
"Wait a minute, what are you..."
I cut him off, "You'll see in a minute." I reached over and switched off the video link. "Penny, I want at least a dozen of your remotes at flight ready, and I want them two minutes ago."
"I'm on it. Any special kind?"
"I want at least one of the new ones with the holofield generators and defense systems. The rest can be almost anything you've got handy."
"What have you got in mind?"
"A little surprise for that pilot." I turned to my desk and began to program up the flight pattern I wanted once the remotes caught up with that F-14. In less than 30 seconds, Penny had the remotes up and ready to launch.
"Ready when you are."
I finished sketching the arrangement I had in mind on the screen. "Get them on their way. Get them straight to orbit and then come in behind that jet. I don't want them traced until I'm ready, so full cloaking and be careful."
"They are on their way. I had two of the newer ones available and a dozen of the standard model. Time to intercept, 12 minutes and counting."
"Ok, here is what I want you to do. Let's find out how good an actress you are."
* * *
"This is Watcher. The bogey just resumed approach to the satellite."
"Roger Watcher, try to maintain your fix on the bogey."
The pilot didn't bother to respond. At the moment, he need all his attention on his ship. It had been pushed to the absolute limits of its service ceiling and he was having a bitch of a time keeping it from dropping out of the sky. "Watcher, confirm the loss of the satellite from your scope." Taking his eye's from his instruments, he glanced quickly at the special gear that had been installed in his ship earlier. "Confirmed, satellite is no longer registering. Bogey is holding position."
* * *
I flipped a switch and duped the display I was watching to the little video display in the It. Bob was going to enjoy this, I hoped. "Ok Penny, it's all yours."
* * *
All at once, every threat alarm on the ship went nuts. The AirForce however hadn't given this mission to a rookie. As the pilot scanned his instruments trying to identify the threat, a new voice broke in on his radio. At first he didn't pay any attention to it. The onboard systems had registered another ship of some kind directly off his right wing and he had snap rolled to evade it. Or at least he had tried to snap roll. At his current altitude, his ship had slewed over in a kind of drunken wobble as the flight surfaces tried to bite into the thin atmosphere.
For the next few minutes, he tried everything he could think of to shake whatever it was that was after him. Nothing seemed to work and some part of his mind kept hearing both the normal radio traffic and another quiet female voice talking to him. Finally the female voice registered on the part of his mind that was flying his ship and he listened to it for a moment.
"Excuse me, doesn't that hurt?"
"What the hell? Who is this?"
"Look off your right wing tip."
The alarms were still howling in his ears, but for just a moment he glanced out right side of his canopy. Floating about two feet off his right wing tip was what looked like a bright silver egg. As he stared at it, he caught something out of the corner of his eye. As he looked around, he saw another and yet another of the things ringing his ship and keeping perfect formation with him.
"What the hell are you?"
"Why, does this form bother you?" The egg peeled away and took up formation about 100 feet from his wing tip. "Would this one be more suitable?" As he watched, the egg shimmered and expanded. A second later he found himself flying in formation with an SR-71. "No? Ok, I guess not." The SR-71 vanished and the egg returned to its former position just off his wing. "Say, are you ok in there? You don't look very well and you really should answer the person calling for you."
From his radio blasted a screech of static and then the voice of the radioman back at his base. "Watcher! Watcher, acknowledge! What the hell is going on up there? We have lost the telemetry from the pod. Watcher..."
"Watcher here. I'm ok."
"Watcher, what the hell happened up there? Were you attacked?"
He looked out at the formation of eggs that circled his ship. "Negative base, there was not an attack. Repeat, I was not attacked. I do however seemed to have picked up an escort." He could hear a female chuckle come from his radio. "That's one way to describe it."
"Watcher? Who the hell was that?"
"Base, this is Watcher. You're guess is as good as mine."
A new voice came on the radio. "Watcher, this is General Hamilton. Can you identify the escort?"
"Negative General. The damned thing looks like a large silver egg and it's matching every maneuver I make."
"Watcher, listen carefully. Can you disable it or force it to land?"
Before he could even respond, the female voice broke in and answered for him. "That's a fine way to treat a lady. Disable it indeed. You spend all this effort to watch me, and now you want to shoot me down?" As he watched, all but one of the egg's made a violent right angle turn and accelerated to better than mach 15 before they left his radar scope. "Let's go have a small chat with your General. Somebody needs to remind you humans about civilized behavior."
The egg swiveled sideways and seemed to point right at his cockpit. "Ok," and there was a short pause, "Captain Johnson. Take me to your leader as it were."
* * *
As Bob and I watched the display from the remote, Captain Johnson turned his ship and headed for his home base. Penny had played it exactly as I described with a few little extra touches of her own. I'd managed to keep a pretty straight face, but Bob was howling over the video link.
As the F-14 landed, the remote kept perfect formation with it and followed it as it rolled to a stop in an isolated area off the end of one of the runways. In the distance I could hear the sirens as base security raced to seal off the area. Captain Johnson cracked his canopy and climbed out of his ship. The remote just hung in its assigned position until he walked around the front of the ship to stand and stare at it. As soon as they got within range, base security circle the ship and the area filled with people, guns and enough brass to start a good sized band. For a few moments, everyone just stood there and stared at the remote hanging in air. When it started to move, every gun in the area followed it as it floated down to rest in front of Captain Johnson.
Then, with a shimmer, it began to change shape, or at least that's what it looked like to the people watching. When it solidified, the Captain found himself facing what looked like a small fox that was standing upright on its hind legs. It was dressed in a short skirt and a loose fitting blouse. A staff and a short cloak completed the picture.
"Hi, would you tell me which of these idiots is General Hamilton? He needs a few lessons in manners. It's not polite to shoot at a lady."
The Captain was unable to answer. As he had heard the first words spoken, he had fainted. The rest of the crowd just stood there staring at her as she turned to face them. "Well, at least he waited until he was on the ground."
The Kalindra image smiled at the gathering and raised a hand to wave.
Enough guns to satisfy a redneck's birthday locked, loaded and pointed at the fox-like figure on the ramp. "Tsk, tsk, tsk." It said. "Look at all of those guns. You boys sure don't know meaning of the word polite."
She vanished, only to reappear on the wing of the TomCat. "Look fellas, I just wanted the chance to speak with someone of authority. No reason to get all huffy about it." The figure smiled in genuinely and fluttered her eyelids. As the rifles swung around to re-aim, a lot of gun barrels smacked into the shoulders and helmets of the swelling number of soldiers. As quickly as the first time, the Kalindra image disappeared and reappeared, this time on a hangar roof behind the throng. "Oh boys!" Everyone wheeled in chaos, this time the rifles sagging to point at the ground as the soldiers realized their uselessness.
Penny was in a mood, and the image began to do a tap dance on the roof of the hangar. This went on for a minute, then the image did a somersault off the roof. It plunged to the ground, but just before impact, it stopped, tumbled gracefully twice, and then gently rested on its feet. "Ta Da!"
There was hushed conversation in the crowd. The soldiers were confused; they'd been called out for a threat repulsion, and wound up in a Bob Hope USO show. The brass was confused because the First Contact wasn't exactly following anything in the policy and procedure manual for SETI. The Kalindra-image walked into the crowd, which parted like the Red Sea before her. When she was well circled, she raised both hands high and yelled. "Give me your attention!" A peculiar shaped gun appeared in one hand and she pointed it at her head. "Ok, I get to talk to someone in charge or the alien gets it!"
This brought more confused and hushed conversation. Finally;
"On behalf of the President of the United States, I bid you Welcome." Said an Air Force General.
"Imagine that. I'm doing Blazing Saddles, and you're doing Starman."
"I beg your pardon?"
"We've seen all of your movies. I especially liked Willow. Oh, anyway, the movies are soooo much better than that lousy record you sent to us. The one bolted to the scrap metal."
"Your, uh, race has discovered our spacecraft?"
"Yeah, spacecraft? I doubt it. Are you people always that patronizing? Besides, that stupid record skipped."
"Yes, it skipped. Sounded like a major honky attempt at rap. Anyway, the spacecraft came doddering right into the middle of the space version of one of your freeway cloverleaf's. Held up traffic for almost a glee."
"You ain't so handsome yourself, bozo."
* * *
Brian looked at the monitor and quietly groaned.
* * *
The General looked disoriented.
"Look, Sergeant," said the Kalindra image, "I can see I've come at a bad time..."
"General. I'm a General."
"Are you leaving? You can't. I --that is-- we'd very much like you to stay. We have so much to learn from each other."
"Say what? I don't think so, Tim."
"Home Improvement, right?" Bubbled the General hopefully.
Kalindra slowly shook her head from side to side and looked disgusted. "And you're in charge... huh." With that, the image was suddenly gone. So was the egg shaped craft she arrived in.
It got very quiet on the ramp.
* * *
"Would you please explain all of this. The way things went at the airfield didn't go the way I thought it would."
"Yeah, be happy to. Just let me finish with these satellite's."
Penny reported that the rest of the satellite's had just vanished. "Ok, Bob, job's over. Now come down here and explain this."
"It's simple. I'm hobbling and humbling the government a little. I --we've poked their eyes out, and then ridiculed them over it. If that doesn't make for a few changes to the policy manuals, nothing will."
"But what's the point?"
"The point is, you have some more work to do."
"ME? Why me?"
"You wanted in, and that's fine. It'll save Penny a lot of work."
"I don't get it."
"Voodoo, Brian. I want you to replace all of those satellites."
Brian paled visibly as I looked at on the It monitor. "Why the hell did you destroy those satellites if all you wanted to do was put them back?"
"You don't get it. Ok, here's the plan..."
After a few minutes, Brian smiled widely. The idea was to replace the satellites, but replace them with better ones than what was there before. Not only that, but they'd have an additional value. Brian would have control over them. They could be used as a part of his overall sensor net, adding to Brian's 'sight.' Further, he could be selective about what the telemetry would be telling the military. But even more than that, it would hide the removal of all information the military had on the flight of the Sunbeam, or any other activity.
"So, you see," I said, "that they had to be treated with the handling I had Penny give."
"They get the idea that anything they might do would be less effective than a fly biting a rock."
"You got it."
"Bob, I really think we could have found a less complex way to do this. It's going to take a lot of energy to replace those satellites."
"Yeah, but it wouldn't be as much fun."
Brian nodded. "True."
"But I've got one last question for you before you head for home. Call it something to think about the next time you don't include me from the start."
"What makes you think that Penny wasn't already tapped into those satellites you threw away?" The expression on his face was priceless.
"Wait a minute. Penny was already using them?"
"She had access to the data from them, yes. Now I'll admit the idea of controlling the data at the source has possibilities. It won't cover for everything though. There are still ground based tracking systems that we will have to watch out for." I could hear him grumbling to himself over the link.
"You mean to tell me that little minx..."
I started laughing at about the same time Penny started flipping Bob shit over the video link. "She doesn't bother to tell me half of what she's up to anymore. What makes you think you're any better?" That set them both off again and I just sat back and listened. When they finally started to wind down, I had figured out what my next step was going to be.
"I want you to send a nice electronic note to the General that you were teasing. Make sure it can't be traced back any farther than the uplink to that old Comsat you're using."
"Ok, what should it say?"
"Tell him that since it seems to be such a big deal for humans to clutter up LEO with that junk. That the sanitation department will return whatever hasn't been disposed of to its original orbits. Sign it with something official sounding. The Department of Interstellar Sanitation or something like that."
"Ok," she paused for a second, "it's on its way. Should give the poor guy heartburn."
"Fine. Now if you would, please call up the plans for a few of the latest model Spysats that Bob trashed and warm up the replicator. If you can make at least one of each, I'll take care of duplicating them. See what you can do about inserting taps or overrides into the onboard computers also. We'll have to be careful, I don't want one of those things to survive re-entry and give something away."
"I'll see what I can do."
While we worked, I kept a watch out of the corner of my eye on the current location of the It. Bob was heading home and I expect he thought he was done for the evening. When he settled down inside his garage and started to shut things down, I gave him a holler. "Don't go too far away. You still have a busy night ahead of you."
"Forget it, I'm beat. Call me tomorrow and we can do lunch or something."
"No such luck bucko, you get to play delivery boy."
"Huh, for what?"
"All of these satellite's for starters. The Sunbeam's not available at the moment. So the It is the only thing available to lift these things into their proper orbits. I'll wizard them up, but you get to park them."
"Oh no, not on your life. I've got to get up early in the morning to get the kids off to school."
"I'll call you in an hour or so to make the first run."
"Now wait a minute. I said I wasn't going..." and the signal cut off as I flicked the switch that shutdown the link.
"You think he'll do it?"
"Yeah, he'll do it. You're not the only one that can infest his computer. He may need a little nudge, but he'll help." I swung my chair around to watch the feed from the remote that was still hovering over the air base. "How's our General doing?"
"I don't think he's going to like the phone calls that are waiting for him. The news of what happened has started to filter back towards the Pentagon. There are a whole lot of brass and scientist pulling their hair out at the moment."
"Good, maybe Bob was right about it shaking a few things loose from the cobwebs. Keep an eye on it please and let me know if things get to out of hand. We were a little hard on the guy and I'd hate to screw him over to badly. He didn't have a chance the way Bob asked you to finish that little encounter."
"And if things get to hot?"
"Hummmm... Maybe a little visit to Clinton might redirect the heat a little."
"You're joking." I just wiggled my eyebrows and turned back to my desk. "Boss, tell me you're joking?" I didn't say a thing. I've got a little button that I had made up years ago at a convention. All it said was 'Never mess with a Mage'. I think it's time I dug it out and began wearing it again.
"Hey Brian. Look at this."
"What, oh that's... what are you looking at?"
"It's the downlink from the test satellite. We're seeing how it works."
"I'll tell you how it works, it works just fine." Frumped Brian.
"No, that's not what I meant. Sure it *works*, but I'm finding out HOW it works."
"You could have asked."
"Yeah, Bill Clinton could have married a woman, too. But as he said to Gennifer in his one fling with femininity, Nothing like a hands-on approach."
"What are we watching?"
"It's the video feed signal."
"What is that, one of the old digitization's of wide spectrum emissions?"
"No, it's I Love Lucy. It's cool. This is the part where Fred dresses up as Santa Clause and..."
"You're playing television reruns?"
* * *
"Yes, Sir. That's what it looks like, Sir."
"Get Commander NORAD on the land line."
A relative few circuits were established and a SkyWatch Commander was speaking to the Commander of the North American Air Defense Command.
"Yes, Sir. It's definitely television. ... No, I don't think it's bounce from the atmosphere." He rolled his eyes. "Yes, Sir. The signals are coming from space, not the planet. Right Sir. Yes, Sir. On my way." He cradled the phone and mumbled to himself.
* * *
"Hey Boss, I have a launch detection."
"Looks to be Canaveral."
* * *
The shuttle arrived on orbital station 120 minutes later. The cargo bay clam shells yawned lazily, and a crew member took control of the utility arm. After three abortive attempts, the new satellite was positioned as it was supposed to be, and the shuttle captain fired the tiny rockets on it to spin it up. As the captain pressed the button, the EVA crew were treated to a large pac-man appearing from behind the planet. The yellow behemoth arced neatly around to the shuttle where it promptly ate the satellite. Crew members swear they heard a 'gulping noise' when it did.
The pac-man disappeared behind the planet as gracefully and quickly as it had appeared.
* * *
"I expect that will hold them for a while." Beamed Brian.
"You're dethspigabel." Said Penny.
"Sylvester's voice has more spit in it." Brian shot back. "Now, watch."
* * *
"Houston, Discovery reports loss of payload."
"Discovery, confirm. You lost the payload?"
"Discovery, Houston. Describe the malfunction, over."
"Well, uh, pac-man... Stand by." Turning. "WHAT IS IT?" He snapped at the crewman tapping his shoulder.
"Sir, look to starboard." The captain's gaze followed the crewman's finger as it pointed out the viewport. The missing satellite was quietly spinning.
"Discovery, this is Houston. We show no malfunction here."
"Roger, Houston. I, uh, never mind."
* * *
The technician at the console carefully aimed the new satellite into deep space and activated the sensing units on board. From the opposite side of the console desk, his commander watched him, impressed with the concentration he saw on the tech's face. "Have something already, do you?"
"Uh, yes. Well, no. I'm... Come look, Sir."
The commander heaved himself out of the duty chair and strode around to the technician's side of the console. "Very faint signal indeed. Better boost the gain and see if you can filter the noise some."
Fingers pressed buttons, and the signal they'd been monitoring was locked into the Cray XMP the boys from Langley use for decryption. "Got a good lock on the signal sir."
"Can you make it out?"
"Not yet, but there appears to be both audio and video intermixed in it."
"Can the computer straighten it out?" His question was answered when the large screen video monitor and the room audio systems came on. "Holy Shit!"
"Yeah." Grinned the technician.
"Is that what I think it is?"
"Yes, Sir. That's the Playboy Channel."
Things were beginning to settle back down to normal, or at least as normal as things ever get around here. Bob was out with the It dropping a few more satellites off and I was figuring out where the next batch would be going. I looked over at the monitor and chuckled once again. Anyone who things I've got the more warped sense of humor of the three of us, has never been around Bob much.
Every day he came up with a different hologram for the It as he made his deliveries. Yesterday, a large duplicate of Jab had been flying around low earth orbit hacking up satellite sized hairballs. Today, it was a bright orange garbage truck with a little animated Velan riding on the back end. It would stop at the correct orbital slot, the Velan would pull a garbage can from the back, and a new satellite would take up its orbit.
We also had a single pickup today. Whoever was handling this affair for the government, hadn't quite gotten the idea that they were not going to be allowed to keep anything up here that we didn't authorize. Every time they launched something. We picked it up, modified its programming, and then returned it to orbit. Just so they knew what was going on, each new satellite would only play the pilot episode of a random TV show before it settled down and started to behave itself. Or at least behaved as well as it every would. Bob had just made his last drop and was closing on the newly launched bird as I watched.
"I still say that this would be a hell of a lot easier for you to do than me."
"And I keep telling you that I can't just teleport those things into the correct orbit. I have to be familiar with the destination or have a real good image of it available. I'd never get the velocity or direction right anyway." It had been a lot of fun stealing them, but putting the ones we had authorized back was a pain, and Bob loved to complain about it.
"Penny, how far to the new one?"
"You're about 5 miles out and closing nicely."
"Tell me this is the last one for today?"
"It's the last one. <chuckle>"
As I watched on the monitor, the It, or the garbage truck if you were picky, slowed and matched orbits with the satellite. "Looks like they launched a new version. I don't recall seeing one of those come out of the replicator before. Penny, have..."
I didn't catch it, but Penny sure did and it's all that saved Bob from getting fried. "Bob, hold on!"
The It jerked to the side like it had been kicked. At almost the same instant, an energy beam of some kind emerged from the satellite and passed right through the side of the hologram. While I was still staring at the screen in shock, the satellite exploded sending shrapnel everywhere.
"Penny, what the hell was that? Bob, are you all right? Bob?"
On the monitor I could see the hologram of the garbage truck flash into and out of existence like a badly flickering movie. It finally died completely and I could see the It hanging there in space. Penny was cussing up a blue streak, and I still couldn't get an answer from Bob.
"Penny, what the hell is going on?" As I continued to watch, the It vanished from sight.
"There, I got the damned cloak back up."
"Forget the cloak, what happened to Bob?"
I second window opened on the monitor and showed the internal view of the cockpit. Or I hoped it did. The image kept breaking up into static every few seconds. "He's ok, but he's also out cold at the moment. He bumped against the wall pretty hard when I jerked the ship out of the way of that laser." The picture broke up again and didn't return. "God damned static charge! Boss, I'm loosing systems in the It faster then I can re-route them."
I had called up the telemetry channel on my console and was watching as Penny tried to keep the thing in the sky. "What is all the static from?"
"I can't tell whether it's EMP or just bleed off from the laser firing. Damn!", And I saw the antigrav web fail completely on my screen. "That does it, he's in freefall. The It just got nailed by a piece of debris from that satellite and it screwed the drive systems."
"Did it puncture the hull?"
"Yeah, but I've got the shields pulled into direct contact with the hull and turned as high as they can go. It's a slow leak, but we will still need to get him out of there fast."
Now it was my turn to start to cuss. I'd delayed bringing the Sunbeam back from Velar while Bob and I handled this mess with the government. Now that I needed it, it was sitting in another dimension. "Ok, pull back the remote and get me a wide angle shot of the area. I'm going to go get him myself."
"It's on its way."
The small window that had been the remote feed from the remote unit acting as the garbage man expanded to fill the entire wall monitor. "Swing it around so I can get a clear image of the Earth in the background. I'm going to have to use it as a reference point." The image shifted slightly and I could see Africa appear below the fuzzy image of the It."
"I'm having trouble with the cloak. It's not going to stay up much longer."
"Just keep the shields up. I'll be taking him to the lunar lab, so have some construction bots ready in case we need to pry him out of there."
"I'm on it."
I looked at the monitor and got my final fix for my jump. With my flight and environment fields established, I teleported into what I hoped was an orbit close to Bob's.
I got lucky and appeared about 100 yards above him. A few seconds later I was hanging just above him and holding onto the ship. The cloak had failed completely, but I could feel the interaction between my shields and the ships. I peeked in the viewport and could see Bob inside. He was holding a rag to his head and was cussing. The radio must have failed also.
*Hold on, I'm getting you out of here.*
This time he grabbed the chair with both hands and held on for dear life. He must not have had time to react to Penny's warning. With a good grip on the It, I visualized the lunar lab and jumped. The lab had been presurized, so as soon as the It settled on the lab floor, I was prying open the canopy. Bob was pushing from the inside and was definitely not in a happy mood.
"...drop fucking rocks on the whole Vandenburg area. There won't be enough left to launch a toy plane!"
"Hold still damnit and let me look at that cut." Bob had once again cut his head open while trying to push it through the hull of the It. "I'll going to have Penny paint the insides red next time. At least it will hide the blood you keep leaking."
"It isn't funny damnit!"
"To you, no. You started this, 'let's fuck with the government' stuff. What did you expect them to do, sit there and take it?" All I heard was a lot of grumbling. "Don't worry about it. They played their best shot, now it's our turn." I looked over at the It as it rested on the lab floor. It was a real mess and was going to take some work to make flight ready again. "We're definitely going to have to get you something better to fly in though. I think the It is going to be off-line for a while."
"Just make sure it's armed this time."
"We'll see... Come on, I've got an idea," and the two of us marched through the gate to my lab.
* * *
"That's all we've been getting from any of them General. The same movie over and over again." On the screen that should have showed the telemetry coming from one of the Spysats watching the Middle-East, a slightly modified version of 'The Day The Earth Stood Still' was playing. This version had Kalindra playing the part that Michael Remy had played in the original.
"I still can't figure out who the Fox is though? It's playing the part correctly, almost to the end."
The General watching over the shoulder of the tech, knew exactly who it was. He had attended a briefing two days ago and had seen the records from the airfield that Kal/Penny had visited. "Don't worry about it son, and don't discuss this with anyone."
"Who would believe me anyway?"
The movie was just coming reaching the scene where the alien ambassador gets shot and killed. In the version they were watching though, the alien survives. The robot however, still gets pissed and the alien tells it,
'Klatu, Barada hates Nicotine'
The alien and the robot lift off in the ship and head for earth orbit. When they get there, the robot turns the ship to face the moon and fires an energy weapon that splits it down the middle and pulverizes the remains.
"General, what the hell have we just gotten mad at us?"
The general looked back and then shook his head. "I don't know son, I really don't know."
We stood around the It. The little ship looked as though it was sagging. There were small holes peppering the front underside, with a fist-sized hole right above a skid attach point. The metal waved with small wrinkles from the front to the rear.
"I hate to say it Bob, but I think it's totalled."
"Yeah." I wasn't in a mood to talk. I had a splitting headache, and I was looking at the carcass of something I'd really liked.
"You had to expect it. You wanted to screw with the government. They only know one response."
"Yeah. Well, I guess that settles it."
"You're giving up? That doesn't sound like you."
"Give up? What? Hell no, I'm not giving up. No, I'm going to do exactly what they did."
"What do you mean?"
It took an hour to convince Brian that this was the way to go. Then it took another two hours to work out the details. In the end, Brian said he thought we were crazy, but logic won out --if lunatics were capable of logic.
The first order of business was to replace the It. We decided against another just like it. Brian had ideas for it that wouldn't fit into the original design, and I had a few things I wanted too. I got everything I asked for --except Brian refused when I asked about a nuclear missile capability.
We stood around the lab floor, each with a piece of chalk. We started with a rectangle with the necessary area to accommodate the various components. When we had those more or less in place, I began to round out corners and add dimension in a way that I liked. We debated the teardrop shape, but I opted for less speed, but a configuration that appealed to my aesthetics.
The new ship was going to be based in a wedge, with the shovel end forward. The fuselage was roughly diamond shaped. We made the craft eighteen feet long, and five feet wide. I wanted aerodynamic ability in case of power loss. If the ship failed again, I wanted to be able glide. If the It failed, it dropped like an anvil off a forty story building. Rubbing the side of my head, I also demanded that the interior be lined with semi-rigid foam.
There were small winglets forward, with inverse swept stub wings in the rear. I calculated that between the shape of the body and the area of the wings, that the ship would have a glide ratio of five to one. By no means was it a sail plane, but it was no brick either. Not only that, but the stub wings had hard points to mount auxiliary equipment to the ship. Equipment like rail guns.
When Penny had all the information she needed, she took charge of the remotes and began to collect up the parts necessary to build the new ship. We'd have to name it, of course. But that would come later. All I wanted was a strong Dog Tea and a bunk.
"What you want to do is dangerous." Said Brian.
"We've been through this. Now, if you don't want to do it, then I'll think of something else."
"No, it sounds like the only thing that will work."
"You'll go then?"
"Yes. You need me to teleport you, and to provide necessary shielding to prevent you from getting killed."
"I still think a remote would be a better idea."
"Nope, can't to facial expression and body language well enough. Plus that, it just wouldn't have the instinct a human can."
"But you're not going to look like you."
"Same thing still holds."
"Ok. Let's get this over with."
"Right! But first let's stop and get my cat."
* * *
The President was sitting in his bedroom watching David Letterman. He was getting to sleep early tonight, and considered that a luxury. Stretching, he picked up the remote control and turned off the TV. When he stood and turned towards the bed, he saw he wasn't alone.
On his bed sat a foxlike creature. If it stood it'd be four and a half feet tall. It was wearing the camouflage fatigues of a soldier, and wore a black beret with a wolf's head insignia on it. The fox wore a military type web belt, but there was no weapon attached to it. At his feet sat a cat that was fully the size of a male lion. The cat eyed the president with the cold eyes of a reptile.
"No games, Mr. President." Said the fox.
"What the hell? I'm going to get..."
"You'll get nothing sir. We're surrounded by an energy field that prevents and entrance or egress. It also mutes any sound to a level that cannot be heard --by humans anyway."
The president stood and took two steps towards the door. On the third step he collided with an invisible wall. The fox creature laughed quietly to himself. He didn't explain that the president reminded him of a mime. Just like one, the president worked his way around full circle, looking for an opening in the invisible cylinder that contained him. When he failed, he turned to face the fox.
"Look here. You don't know what this action can lead to. I'm aware that you people have a flair for illusion, but we showed you today that we aren't fooled one damn bit. We also showed that your ships can be destroyed."
The fox chuckled. "When did you destroy one of our ships?"
"Why, this morning when we sent up an anti-spacecraft mine."
"Yes. I see. You're talking about the destruction of our drone."
"You didn't think that was... Oh! You thought that was one of our ships? Oh ho, that's rich. No, you didn't destroy a ship. You blew up a small remote controled utility craft."
The president eyed him coldly. "So, you say that you have bigger and better ships?"
"No, I didn't say that at all. I only said you destroyed an expensive toy. The least you can do is thank us for not allowing it to drop onto one of your cities."
"If it fell all the way, it would have burned up on the way down."
"Not exactly, but that's unimportant."
"Then what did you come here for?"
"To invite you to the flagship."
"I'm going nowhere with you."
"As you wish. It was an amenity --what is it? Oh, an ice breaker."
"Then get to the point."
The fox was on his feet and nose to nose with the president in a half second's time. Needle sharp canine teeth glistened wetly only millimeters from the president's face. "Listen here. You're noisy, misbehaved kids playing in a church. You're an arguing couple in a movie theater while the best part is on. Humans are a bad case of flatulence in a steamer trunk. We've tried to do this nicely, even with a bit of humor. But you won't let it happen nicely, will you?"
"Step back!" Barked the president. Instantly, Jab was the size of a rhinoceros and was stalk padding towards him. He looked from side to side while beads of sweat appeared on his upper lip. "Call off the cat. I won't make trouble."
"The worst you could make for me is dessert for that cat. Now here are the terms. They aren't negotiable."
"And if we refuse?"
The fox ignored that. "You'll stay within the orbit of Mars until you can behave in a multicultural society. You will make no attempt to remove or deactivate the satellites we're providing for you. These will do everything your old ones did --and do a better job-- but they are only permitted to aim inwards. They are also incapable of providing assistance for you to wage war. These are the conditions. There is no appeal."
"Who in the hell do you think you are? Coming in here and dictating to me... do you know who I am?"
"Of course I do. Why talk to the car hop when you can speak with the manager?"
"You didn't answer. What if we refuse?"
"Your major population centers and industrial complexes have been plotted and their coordinates fed to our firing systems. If you fail to comply, they will be destroyed. There will be no warning, save this one. They'll just cease to exist."
"Your race could do that? What assurance do I have that your word is genuine? You came in here like thieves."
"When we came like visitors, you turned your army on us."
"What did you expect?"
"Something more polite."
"You speak of being polite and yet you talk easily about the deaths of millions of people?"
"Don't lecture me, human. Your space garbage has wandered through our zones of communication and disrupted it. We have had collisions between ships and planets --with great loss of life-- because of the interference your science experiments have caused."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that your use of the bandwidth is so crude that your space junk has effectively jammed our frequencies. In one accident alone, and yes it was the worst, over a million and a half of our people were killed when a liner impacted in the center of a city. You have no concept of your actions and cannot be allowed to continue until both your race and your science has matured."
The president stood blinking and stunned. "I had no idea..."
"But you went on anyway. You must be contained."
"I'll bring this before my country's leaders immed--"
"You'll do what you need to do. But you will comply."
On that, the fox and the cat were gone. The president looked at the bed. It was still messed from where the fox had been sitting. Closer looking showed a few hairs from the creature were caught in the fabric of the blanket.
* * *
"Nice touch, those hairs, Brian."
"Thank you. I thought it would keep him from thinking that he'd been talking to a hologram."
"No doubt it will. How do you think it went?"
"I guess we'll find out."
"That's the story, gentlemen." Said the president. He was speaking to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called to the Oval Office after the visit from the fox.
Around the table were representatives from each of the five services. Generals from the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force were all talking of retaliation, but the Coast Guard representative sat quietly pensive. After a few moments, he spoke.
"Gentlemen, we should think this through. From everything I've been made privy to, I think we're the ones in the indefensible position."
That grew angry snorts from around the table. "Think about it. Every image they've sent to us is based in an old movie. This leads me to believe that our EM emissions have definitely been getting to them. Furthermore, we have seen technology we cannot approach at the moment, and this leads me to believe that at the very least, they're a technical equal to us. Perhaps more, I don't know. And this fact, men. They have made no attempt to harm anyone so far. If they were the aggressors, shouldn't they have attacked something?"
That Air Force general spoke now. "Hell, they attacked our defensive satellites. Picked 'em up like they were cleaning a room. Should we just stand here and take crap like that?"
"Hell no!" Said the Marine. "Let's identify their base and go turn it into a parking lot."
Coast Guard spoke again. "Are your men trained and equipped for battle in a vacuum --or a zero-G environment? We have no idea where their close support base is --or even if they have one."
Navy snorted. "How else are they getting logistical support?" The answer dawned on all of them at once.
"Who says they need close support. What if they just 'beam' what they need from their homeworld?" Asked the president. He got no reply.
Air Force stood. "I think we ought to turn loose everything we have against them. We have to approach this from a position of might.."
"Oh, right." Said Army. And what exactly to we attack? Another garbage truck? Pac-Man? Or should we just attack our own petting zoos in case we're seeing some sort of rapid evolution right here on earth?"
"What about this beaming thing they do?" Asked the president. "I feel like I'm in a bad episode of Star Trek."
"I'll say this for them," said Coast Guard. "They sure know how to keep us guessing. Do we have any reason to believe that they can destroy the areas they've said they would?"
* * *
"Boss, how much of our resources should we dedicate to the new ship?"
"Put everything on it that isn't needed for other tasks, Penny."
"You got it. I figure that we'll have the hull finished in about five hours. If everyone helps --you and Bob too-- the ship will be flight ready in about fifteen hours."
"Call me when you're ready to do ship's systems." Then
*Bob, how close are you?*
*About thirty minutes. This mylar stuff sticks to itself like kitchen wrap.*
*Yeah. It gets better out of warmth. It won't stick in space.*
*So you say.*
"Penny, are the system controls ready for Bob's little project?"
"On-line now, Boss. Want to run a test?"
*Bob, are you clear of the framework?*
*Yes. You ready to test?*
*Yes, stand by.*
A moment later, a large framework of metal truss' came to life as it sat in geosyncronous orbit with the backside of the moon. Its large arms unfolded and refolded. Then it turned first one way, then another.
"Looks good to me, Brian."
"Yep. It looks fine."
"Do you think it will work?"
"Bob thought of it, so it'll sure as hell irritate them."
Forty minutes later, two men, a remote and a cat stood in Brian's lab watching the large wall monitor. On screen, the framework that had been in orbit swung slowly out from behind the moon, and emerged in between the earth and the photosphere of the sun. Any earth instruments would not be able to determine where it came from.
The frame maneuvered up above the planet, and took station over North America. Again its arms unfolded. But this time, the large fingers held sheets of mylar that shaped themselves into huge parabolic reflectors. There were four of them, and each could be independently aimed. The penumbra of the earth's shadow was starting to race from the east coast to the West, bringing evening twilight to the continent.
As it started to get dark, the dishes swung to focus light from the sun down onto the planet's surface. The shallow concavities of the dishes caught light from the sun and reflected it towards earth. The effect was to keep the surface lit as though it was post-dawn morning.
* * *
"Can we tell if that light source is reflective or generated?" Asked the president.
"Spectrographic analysis says it's reflected. But we really can't say. It could either be reflections, or they could have light sources that give off the same radiation spectrum we're used to seeing from the sun. We can't get a look at the thing because our birds are all aimed downwards, and we can't maneuver them to look at it."
Air Force sat down and Navy stood up. "I think they're telling us something. I think they're telling us they can do what they say they can do."
"Maybe not," said the Marine. "Maybe this is the best they can do."
"I guess that leaves us asking if we want to find out or not." Said the president. "I don't know if we should risk that."
"Should we roll over and play dead?" Snapped Army. "Just knuckle under and let them overrun our country, destroy our civilization?"
"What makes you think that will happen?" Asked Coast Guard. "All they asked us to do was to stop interfering with their communications."
"Well then." The Marine swaggered around the table. "Looks like we have a weapon then, doesn't it? By god, we may just lick these suckers yet. If we can interrupt their lines of communication, we can stop their support, ruin the chain of regimental command, and pare them down to size."
"What if..." said Coast Guard, "our only interference is with their version of civilian craft navigation. Like if we shut off the VOR and ILS equipment here?"
This gave pause to the Joint Chiefs.
"So," said Army. "Do we have any idea what it is we're facing? Has anybody seen a real ship of any kind?"
"We saw the one at the airbase, and we saw the one working the satellites in orbit."
"We saw images. We know that now. What if these suckers don't have any ships?"
* * *
The ship had a vicious look to it. The raked body gave the impression of great speed, even as it sat still in the lab bay. It sat on three short skids attached tricycle style to the fuselage. The ship had a slight nose-down attitude in the parked position. From the stub wings in the rear hung twin firing tubes. Each was capable of delivering either a particle beam or laser blast at eight shots per second.
"What's the firing power?" I asked Brian.
"One point twenty-one gigawatts." I laughed at that.
"Back to the future, eh? How about inside?"
"You're powered by the same general theory used in the Sunbeam. You still don't have it's speed --maybe half to two thirds of it. The power is generated onboard through an artificial induced singularity. You can run on full power for about fifty of your lifetimes, twenty if you use those guns a lot. --And I suggest that you don't. That rail gun will push a hole through half a planet.
Inside, you have shields against almost anything the Sunbeam does. If you run into something hard at velocity, you won't survive it. Just about anything else is going to bounce off. Yes, the interior is packed with rigid foam." He smiled. "Now, you don't need the headset anymore, but will use a device similar to it that's built into the cabin. If you wander off, then you'll have to use the headset. The ship can only respond to you if you're within about a hundred yards of it. You have four monitors. Three in the console and one head's up on the view screen. You have full three-axis control over direction from side sticks we mounted beside each of the seats. You can fly it from either side. You have the ability to carry anything you can stuff in the back there, and that gives you about 20 cubic feet. Also, the photon emitters you wanted are mounted on the leading and trailing edges of the wing tips. You can skywrite with light at high noon if you want."
"Sounds like fun. Anything else?"
"Yeah, a few things. You can do holographic transmission, either manual or automatic --you have access to the master database for things like that. There are some other features, but you'll find those as you go along."
"When will it be ready to go?"
"Penny? How about that?"
"It's going to be another hour, Boss. That is, if you stop chatting and get to work."
As the last note of the song died out, I collapsed against the rear of Bob's new ship. The spell had worked, but it had taken everything I had to complete it. Now the entire hull had been transformed from normal metal to a seamless construct that would withstand anything thrown at it. I gave a fleeting thought to painting tiles on this one also, and let it drop. Part of the protection it would give was due to the highly polished silver finish that Bob had found so neat the first time he had seen the Sunbeam.
"Boss, are you all right?"
I picked my head up and found myself facing one of Penny's construction bots. I quick glance showed that Bob was back in the main lab and hadn't seen me collapse. "Give us some privacy" and I waved at the gate that connected the two areas. A few seconds later, what few sounds the made it through the gate cut out completely.
"Ok, he can't hear us. Now what's wrong? You've looked a little sick ever since you and Bob got back from your little visit with Clinton."
"We were lucky to even get back at all."
"So what the hell is going on? I've seen you sing hull metal into place and not even breath hard."
I thought about what had almost happened during Bob's little visit and tried to blot it from my mind. When I looked up again, the remote was still floating there waiting for me to answer. "I got my first warning. The moment Bob and I jumped, I felt the drain begin. By the time he finished his little lecture, I was lucky to be able to keep myself cloaked and his illusion in place."
"Yeah, warning. And I'm not sure I get more than one. I've been playing this whole thing real close to the edge of what I think I'm allowed as the current ArchMage. For the most part its all been tech based with very little magic involved. The spells I cast to get us in to see Clinton put me over the line. I can't interfere with human affairs like that using magic."
"So what happens now?"
"Now I make sure I don't do it again. My abilities are returning, but at a slow rate. It's going to be a couple of days before I'm back to normal." I looked over at the gate that lead back to my main lab. "There is no need to tell Bob about the particulars here. I'll explain what I need to if the need arises. In the mean time, let's get this thing finished up."
"You take care of your self. Don't push it."
"I'll be ok, just keep an eye on Bob for me." My breathing had slowed to a more normal rate and I stood up to examine the results of my work. I'll have to give Bob credit, he designed a mean looking ship. It wouldn't have been complete though without a few touches of my own. Once again my personal crest was embedded in the metal of the ship, just aft of the bulge that was the pilots' seat. There were no openings in the hull this time, but below the bulge that would have held the ports was Bob's name in neat Velan script;
Robert 'Foxfire' Kirkpatrick
If the various satellites ever did get a visual on him, they were going to get one more piece of evidence that confirmed the ship's supposed origins. I looked up at the bot for a moment. "Are the safety interlocks working?"
"Yes, I tested them during and after installation of the weapons systems that Bob wanted."
"What kind of automatic fallback did you use?"
"In the event of my 'death', they revert to his full control. Otherwise they need my authorization to fire if they are within the boundaries of the Solar System. I've setup a small area of myself to monitor them full time. He should never know that he's being shadowed unless he tries to fire on something living in other than self defense."
"Good enough." I patted the wing of Bob's little ship. "I only went along with building this because it's obvious now that I won't be able to bail him out if he gets in serious trouble. This little ship is going to have to handle that job now." Grabbing a rag, I polished off the hand prints I'd left on the hull. "Speaking of ship, I need to get the Sunbeam back here so you can tap the drive for power. I've seen the lights in this lab blink at least twice in the last hour or so."
"I'd appreciate it if you would. I'm running the whole thing on what I could cobble together after you vaporized the reactor. It's not going to hold for long if we keep putting these kinds of demands on it."
"Ok, can you make due for another couple of hours?"
"Hours yes, but I wouldn't push it much beyond a day or so."
"Ok, I'll get the Sunbeam back in hear ASAP. You'll have to move the" and I stopped in mid sentence. "Say, just what is this things name anyway?"
"I don't know. Bob hasn't named it yet."
I gave a silent prayer while shaking my head. "I sure hope he picks something normal this time." I looked at the ship resting in the middle of the hanger. In a way, it resembled a smaller version of the Sunbeam "If the subject comes up, ask him how he likes 'Sunspot' for a name."
"Yeah, a smaller version of a Sunbeam that you might think was harmless until you got bitten by it. It's just a thought, it's his ship."
I tossed the rag I was holding to the waiting bot and started walking towards the gate to my main lab. The way the last couple of hours had gone, I shouldn't have been surprised when all hell seemed to be breaking loose when I stepped through.
Bob whirled around at hearing me come up behind him. "They didn't believe the warning."
"What's up now?" I looked at the wall monitor and saw two Titan launches taking place. "They launching a couple of Spysats?"
"Nope. Penny can give you the details."
"Ok, so what are they?"
"They are putting up the last two Star Wars ASAT's they have available."
"Like the one that fired on the It?"
I could hear Bob grumbling to himself. "Clinton must be real damn stupid to have thought he was going to get away with this."
"Maybe he hasn't gotten the lab report on those hair's I left behind on the bed."
"What's that going to prove?"
I snickered to myself. "You don't think I used Terran Fox hairs do you? Also, you owe Kalindra a gallon of sugar cookies the next time you see her." I took that a second to sink in.
"Yep, fraid I did. The scientist that runs the DNA scan of those hairs is in for a real treat."
"I'd like to be a fly on that wall and watch the shit hit the fan. Someone is going to have one hell of a time explaining what's going on."
"Yeah, but until then we need to explain it to them again." I pointed back towards the gate. "Your ship is ready when you are. Unless they have more up their sleeve than last time, about all they might be able to do is smudge the finish a little." Bob took off at a dead run for the gate. "Hey, you remember how to get it?"
"Yeah, hold my hand against the mark until the hull softens. Then step through."
"Close enough, and be careful this time. I can't come get you if you screw up." He skidded to a stop at the edge of the gate.
"Run that by me again."
Shit, me and my big mouth. "I can't bail you out anymore using magic. I've already stepped over the limits of what I can get away. I don't dare interfere with local status quo anymore."
"Or what? You get sent to jail?"
"Something like that, my abilities will fade to zilch."
"What, God will punish you? Give me a break."
"God, smaud. I don't believe in God any more than Kalindra does. But, I have been warned and I'm not going to risk everything I have just so you can wage a one man war against the US Government. That ship out there is 100 percent tech based. I made sure that if anyone ever got close enough to check it out that they wouldn't find anything to send them on a witch hunt. I've designed it such that it should do a pretty good job of keeping you alive, but the final choice is in your hands. Just watch yourself is all I'm saying." I could see him thinking it over.
"Ok, just so I know where I stand," and he nodded at me before ducking through the gate.
A new window opened up on the monitor and I saw Bob's ship as it lifted out of the hanger and into the lunar sky. Penny was feeding him a running description of the systems layouts and apologizing for the ride. She was having to balance the drive as he flew it and I knew from experience just how rough that could be. When he reached orbit, the cloaking systems came on and I lost sight of him. I'd told him the truth about his ship not containing any magical components this time. When cloaked, the only way I could track him was via the hyperlink that tied him to Penny.
The view on the monitor shifted to an orbital plot of the local system and I watched as the dot the represented Bob dove for LEO. As I had expected, he was headed straight for the two new birds that had just been launched. As he slowed to approach the first, the video link opened up and I could see him thinking about his next move.
"You claim this thing is proof against those satellites?"
"That hull shouldn't even notice it."
"Ok, lets find out. Penny, can you open me a video link to Skywatch and alter the signal so I look like the illusion Brian used?"
"Should be no problem. I can edit the feed and insert whatever you want."
Bob turned to look around the cabin of his ship. "You better make sure that the background is clean also. Anything that has writing on it better be labeled in Velan like the hull is" and he turned to grin at me. "You're going to have to tell me what you wrote on the side of my ship. If it's a joke or a pun, I'm going to tell Karen to throw out the cookies she's been making."
I simulated my best horror expression. "Oh, oh. I better change it then."
"Penny, you ready with the link?"
"Give me another second. I've got to get this right the first time and they've changed the access codes again." A couple of seconds went by and Bob was replaced by the image of the Velan that had visited Clinton. "Ok, tell me when to cut you in."
Bob reached out and flipped the control that engaged the cloak. "Now will do fine." Even as he began to talk, I could see the satellite he had matched orbits with begin to fire its attitude jets to swing itself around.
"Hello again. It would seem that our warning did not make it through to everyone involved, so we will try one last time." The satellite had stopped its motion and was hanging in space pointed at Bob's ship. On the screen, it looked like Bob looking at something ahead of him. "Since you seem to need proof that you are incapable of being more than an annoyance, and since that pitiful collection of junk is charged for firing, I suggest you fire it" and he sat back and looked like he was bored with the whole thing.
I'll give whoever was commanding the thing Earth side credit for having guts. No brains at all, but lots of guts. About five seconds after Bob's challenge, the ASAT fired its laser and nailed Bob's ship dead center. Then, like the first one, it exploded. I could hear Penny snicker in the background. "They still can't build a decent power plant. That one was even worse than the first."
"It wasn't suppose to explode?"
"No, it's suppose to be multi-use. They just have a few bugs in the system."
On the screen, Bob seemed not to even notice that he had been shot at. The external view I was receiving showed a small cartoon character exit from the back of the ship and wipe an imaginary smudge from the hull. "You'll be getting a cleaning bill for that. Now I think it's time to do a little cleaning of my own."
I could see him doing something at the controls. "Penny, what's he up to?"
"He's targeting the other ASAT with his weapons systems."
"Just the ASAT?"
"That's it. He's using full power also."
"Trust Bob to use a sledgehammer to kill a fly. This should be interesting."
On the screen, Bob turned back to talk to Skywatch. "I advise you not launch any more of these things. Next time, I might decide to target the launch site instead." With an obvious flick of his finger, Bob fired the particle cannon I'd given him. The external view showed twin lances of light pulse from his wing tips and the ASAT vanished in a burst of hard radiation and sub-atomic particles. "So endth the lesson."
With that, the ship swung on its axis and pointed off into deep space. A few seconds later, and with the cloak still disengaged, Bob and his ship swung over the planet and headed straight for the sun. After about ten minutes, the cloak came on and he changed course to head back to the lunar lab. The Velan visual vanished and Bob stared back at me from the monitor. "Well, do you think we finally got through to them?"
"I hope so, I'm not sure my nerves can stand much more. What made you dare them to fire?"
"The only thing the military understands is superior force. They weren't going to give up until they had it shoved down their throats."
"That isn't what I meant. I meant, what made you sit there and let them shoot at you. I said that hull SHOULD protect you, but it's never been tested quite that way." I could see the color fade from his face.
"You mean it might have failed?"
I started to laugh as what he had done sank in. "Hey, even I make a mistake once in a while. Next time I suggest you test things like that when you're not in the line of fire. You only got a labside garrentee after all."
REAL POWER. That's what it was. Even in the stasis field, I could feel the acceleration of the new ship. It was a little hard to get used to the fact that I no longer looked through windows to see outside. Instead, I had a sensor array that gave me a 360 degree spherical view around my craft. The screens inside looked like windows, as though one was looking through, but had capabilities no window could provide. I could zoom, go to spectral views --anything on the EM bands-- like infra-red, radar, low light and the other usual viewing modes, or 'look' at sound, magnetism, and other non-EM emissions. It was its most dramatic when normal image was overlaid on gravitation mode, and the ship was fully accelerated. The view is indescribable, but beautiful.
I stepped away to get a full look at it. The ship sat on the lab floor with its California rake and drooping wings. It had the look of a bird of prey. Borrowing from my youngest's vocabulary, I called it Raptor. With the forward sweep of the wings, it had a Pterodactyl look to it.
Someone once told me that the Birds of Prey that Klingons used in Star Trek were loosely based on the Pterosaurs. As I looked at my new ship, I realized that it bore more than a passing resemblance to a Klingon Warship. Even the rail guns looked at worked like the disrupters on a Bird of Prey. "Kaplah!" I saluted, and walked off to find Brian.
The meeting didn't bode well. Brian explained that he was at the limits of capabilities, and he looked it. I hadn't noticed before he spoke, but he was a little gaunt and pale. Musing that over, I went and found a construction bot and had it follow me back to the bay. I had it make some few little changes and tunings. I'd just sat down after finishing up when Brian came through.
*Bob, another launch.*
I got the details as I mounted the ship and settled into the command chair. The Raptor blew off the pad and cloaked. I had nav plot a course that took me outwards before curving back in out of the sun. I ran up to full power and bore in on the insertion point for the vehicle rising fast out of earth's atmosphere. As the ship streaked in, I slowly let the cloak drop. On the planet, the ship looked like it was coming out of lightspeed and materializing as it approached the rendezvous. I let the ship down to about mach 5 before opening up on the bird. It vanished and then I did.
"I have a radio signal you might be interested in."
"The planet. I think we're being paged."
"Get Bob on-line - but no video. Let him to the talking."
* * *
"This is a representative of the Government of the United State..."
"I say, this is a rep..."
"I heard that. What do you want?"
"We wish to sue for peace."
"Sure you do. That's why you're sending more of your noisemakers, right?"
"To whom am I speaking?"
"Rho Bertkay, Commander BRI-PEN-JAB. Consolidated Peace Forces. Who're you?"
"My name is Norwood, Commander NORAD."
"Ah, a peer. Greetings, Sir."
"And to you. May I ask your intentions?"
"Our intents are as they have been."
"You wish us not to launch anymore spacecraft?"
"Not at all. You are free to explore your own areas. We simply ask that we not be subjected to the problems your Poets Arrows cause."
"Poets Arrows? I don't understand."
"You poet said 'I shot an arrow into the air, It came'..."
"...'To rest I know not where.' I see. This is the extent of your complaints against us?"
"It is, yes."
"I believe I can speak for our interests and say that this will no longer be a problem between us."
"That would be a good start."
"What are you prepared to give in return for our offer?"
"We offer something, you offer something. It's called negotiation."
"Don't talk down to me, General. I won't be patronized."
"My apologies, Sir. I meant not to offend."
"Not a problem. Now, to answer you, you make sure to use the craft we gave you, and not to toss any more up here. If you wish to experiment in space, then you'll do it with manned vehicles and tightly focused communication lines."
"And if we do this, what might the United States expect in return?"
"You can expect to live."
This brought a pregnant silence. Then
"This is not a good faith beginning, Commander. We offer conciliation and you offer a threat."
"It is you who poses the threat, Sir. I have explained the loss of life which your forays into space sciences have caused our people. I have made it clear that we wish to live in separate harmony --but you would not allow it. Your government launched weapons against our remotely piloted craft, and have attempted to place further weapons into orbit."
"One must expect a people to defend themselves." Said the General. I had to muse that over.
"Granted. Where would you like to go from this point?"
"What we envision is a partnership. We both live in the same galaxy, and we should be able to do so in an atmosphere of sharing and mutual cooperation."
I laughed. "Same galaxy? No, General. Your assumption is false."
"Let me get this straight. You're not from this galaxy?"
"Well, my family on my mother's side is, but my father isn't. We occupy a number of galaxies, General."
"We would consider it an act of good faith for you to demonstrate this to us."
I pivoted the Raptor while having nav make sure I wouldn't fly through a planet or an asteroid. A course lock established as I faced away from the planet and I stabbed the power control to maximum. At the same time, I fired the photon emitters on the wing tips and engaged the sprint engines. The ship jackrabbited away from the planet, almost immediately attaining a speed of one-half C. The ship drew a glowing line along it's path as it went. I shut off the sprints after a five second burn and swung the ship about. It took me almost four minutes to get back without them engaged.
"As you can see, General, even a slow ship like this scout class vehicle should be an apt demonstration of our ability to move. I stayed sub-FTL so your instruments could track me."
"We'd like some time to consider this, Commander."
"Consider it all you like, General. But do not launch another vehicle."
"One more thing..."
"And that is?"
"We have a situation beginning here. We find it in the best interests of our society to reserve certain knowledge from the people. It is necessary to alleviate panic."
"The knowledge that we are not alone in the universe is a dual edged sword. We have those among us who would use the information to exploit and incite the people of this planet."
"What has that to do with us?"
"Your light has made it clear to the people that something is going on."
"What are you talking about, General?"
"The light you have in orbit --illuminating the eastern seaboard of our country."
"Light? Oh, you mean the targeting system."
"General, what you see there is similar to the antiquated laser sights that some of your hand held weapons use. It illuminates the target so we have a visual representation of the target area."
"What kind of weapon can that be, Commander?"
"You're plying me for information. You're a good agent, Sir."
"However, it doesn't matter. I'll tell you. In a case like this, we use the materials available to us. Do you recall your planet's history? A Greek society used mirrors to repel a seaborn attack against them."
"I recall this."
"In essence, it is the same. We have a device similar to the one you speak of orbiting the sun. It stays behind it. Should we wish it, we can elevate it and focus a great deal of your suns power on concentrated areas."
"However, since you are acting in what you call good faith, so shall we."
The Raptor pivoted and the rail guns spoke at once and the reflector was turned into so many free electrons.
"Now, General, I have other business to attend to. I see no reason for further dialog."
"Wait, Commander. When will we be able to speak again?"
"What need is there for that?"
"We have so much to learn from one another. We have cultures and technology to share."
"General, we have no interest in these things. Most certainly a transfer of technology. You have no concept of what you're doing with what you have now. No, Sir. I cannot imagine such a relationship at this time."
"This is most disappointing."
"I'm sorry for that, but it cannot be helped." I switched off the link and jumped the ship out towards deep space, cloaking as I went. After I was sure that I couldn't be observed, I swung the Raptor back and approached lunar lab with the sun at my back. Stepping out:
"Penny, can you tune the sprint engines. That was a pretty rough ride."
"I'll look into it. I just got the main engine balanced, I'll see what I can do with the auxiliaries."
I found Brian in his study. "Nice work, Bob. I imagine they think we're pretty powerful."
"You aren't getting a swelled head over this I hope." No smile.
"No, but the truth is, we do have some pretty heavy technology on our side. I imagine we could give the planet a run for it's money."
"How far are you planning to go?"
"Not very. I'm getting bored with this."
"Glad to hear it."
"I have just one other thing to do..."
"Kick on the monitor for Penny's data links and watch..."
Brian did so. Penny was injecting a news story in such a way that one news agency believed they were getting it from another. Within minutes, we'd be seeing CNN speaking of it, and not far behind would be the rest of the newsies spreading the word. It took less than that."
"...here it comes."
"I'm Bonnie Batista for CNN Headline News. Government officials today commented on the alternative energy project being developed by Raytheon, McDonnell-Douglas, and NASA. The plan called for what scientists are calling 'Solar Augmentation.' This artists conception shows how it was to work..."
The news went on to explain how an attempt was being made to fuel solar collectors on the planet using a reflective dish in orbit. Ms. Batista went on to explain that a miscalculation in its operation caused it to collide with a series of LEO craft --including some Star Wars/SDI platforms. The resulting crash was spectacular, and was visible to many in the daytime sky. The accident had cost the taxpayers approximately four trillion dollars.
"It is expected that the Houses and the President are going to have to re-evaluate the space program, and an order from President Clinton, placing a hold on all launch activity, is also expected within the hour." Finished the report.
"Nicely done." Said Brian. "You've explained the reflector, made a bunch of people mad at government waste and incompetence, and given our military friends something to think about."
"Pretty cool, eh?" I smiled
"You've also set the space program back a few years."
"That's regrettable. Maybe we can..."
"No, stop right there. It's over and done with. We'll keep ourselves well cloaked and take a hands off approach from here on out."
"But nothing. I said it's done. Period." Brian was darkening, and I knew better than to argue.
"Ok, it's done. So what do we do with ourselves now?"
"What did we do all of this for?"
"Ah! Second star to the right..."
"And straight on 'till morning."