“Ok, I want you to – yes, drop that here please, thank you – I want you to say that again to me, very slowly.” The Man In The Tower said, waving his hand at his assistant. He placed the latest intelligence binder on the corner of the director’s desk and promptly walked out of the room.
“Look, Mike, I am not fucking with you here.”
“I know you’re not; you boys spot the Chinese up there before we do, and we appreciate that. I’m just-” The Man In the Tower cradled the phone receiver in the crook of his neck, reaching out to flip through the binder that was left on his desk. “-not really sure what to make of what you’re telling me. Other than a talk show tour and possibly a book deal-”
“No, no. Look, Mike-”
“Brian, what is it? Dumb it down for me, because I’m not really interested in ‘trans-orbital’ retrograde orbits or whatever; I’ve got much bigger fish to fry, and you know this secure line is only for emergencies or updates on Blackeye.”
There was an exasperated, nervous sigh on the other end of the phone, and Mike continued to flip through his intelligence report as his NASA associate collected his thoughts. The Russians were trying to destabilize what’s left of Ukraine after the disastrous pull-out-and-surge-back we attempted in Syria, the Kurds declared themselves a free state – finally – and Iran was now a nuclear state, which prompted Israel to drop their uranium dick on the table, but apparently the Muslim world was up in arms over Iran accidentally hitting the Dome of the Rock so there was a fatwa on-
“No. I’ve checked with 15 other observatories – including overseas – and we’re all coming to the same conclusion, which is why we’re not telling anyone but you types.”
Mike put the binder down.
“This thing is – it’s like the size of Manhattan. Missing an asteroid that big would be a problem in and of itself, but it suddenly appeared in front of Jupiter. Not that we traced it to Jupiter – one frame there was the big bastard and the next was this thing. Nothing in this solar system moves that fast.”
“And you’re certain-”
“We’re certain. I’ve sent over everything to you – raw data, our notes, everything – but we first thought it was an anomaly, or another exo-solar object. But…”
There was a shaky pause, and a deep breath.
“The fucker moved, Mike. It moved against the orbit of Jupiter’s moons. This means it’s powered; it’s not gravitationally locked to the planet. It appeared, and then from an impact trajectory the thing moved away.”
The Man in The Tower leaned forward at his mahogany desk in Langley and closed the folder with his free hand, the phone receiver pressed hard against his ear. Before he could ask his next question his door opened; his assistant gave him a very very concerned look… and held another stack of papers.
“. . . Who else did you say saw this?”
– – – –
It wasn’t just the boys out in Mauna Kea who noticed – not by a long shot. The Hubble picked it up, of course, but so did SWIFT, Astrosat and BRITE – though that was due to a transit detection and was mostly accidental. CERN was concerned over what they were getting readings of and started to ping various agencies asking some very pointed questions, and AGILE – well, AGILE went absolutely apeshit.
The problem also wasn’t just that a few major governments of the world picked up “The Anomaly” – as The Agency would initially call it; Hobbyist astronomers numbered in the millions worldwide, and at any given time there’s at least a couple hundred telescopes pointed at the King of the Planets to stare in awe at his majesty.
The fact that a city-sized ship blocked their view of the Great Red Spot for a brief moment wasn’t lost on any of them.
And sure, it started with the initial round of tabloid gossip rags picking up the story, “ALIENS VISIT JUPITER – BAT BOY STILL AT LARGE” and a few morning talk shows had some shaky home-camera footage of a bright white dot appearing and disappearing before the Great Red Spot – but for the first few days, it was mostly ignored. Various Internet outlets printed their own take on the amateur photos, a few suited astronomers made the rounds, and things were being relatively suppressed.
Then the leak came.
No, it wasn’t because of any sort of treasonous behavior on an astronomer’s part – by now, multiple high-level calls had been made between various domestic and foreign ABC agencies, and pretty much the entire earth intelligence community was on board for operation “lowkey panic while the nerds figure out something goddamnit”. Operation Lowkey also had the fun side effect in the astronomical community of “we’ll murder you and everyone you ever loved if you breathe a word of this now above-top-secret information to anyone” with a dash of “We’re giving you all new harddrives; put your old ones in the bag please.”
No, the leak came because the fucking ship whipped back around into view.
Itick’’t was frowning – this in and of itself was nothing new; he was a bit of a sourpuss, all things considered, but that’s what made him endearing… at least, that’s what some of the older crew who had grown used to his prickliness said. The younger crew just called him “Taskmaster” or “Sir” to his face, and some other things behind his back that aren’t fit to print. However, everyone put up with him because he was damn good at what he did. And what he did was… well, a bit of a nebulous concept.
He was the ships’ ears, but not really. He was their eyes, but not really. He was their lookout – except, well, not.
Itick’’t was the ships’ EM/ECM Lord; his job was to make sure to clean up sensor data, to make sure everything was reporting as it should be, and to catch any sort of glitches that would indicate someone was hiding something that they didn’t want discovered. He’d been serving in this capacity for well over 500 years, and had seen many many tricks in many books; anything from spoofed credentials and masked ship wakes to false-star EM transmissions and Well-dropping. Itick’’t was frowning because he finally, finally was running across a trick that made no damned sense.
Itick’’t added that new transmission to the bank that he was developing, having his AI churn through the data looking for reason. The fact that it was sapient-made was of no argument; he had immediately masked each of the transmissions from the rest of his colleagues’ sensor inputs because for one, he didn’t want to distract them, and two he didn’t want anyone who may be watching to know that he knew.
“?390u —*_* _— 1@$#A`~?”
Itick’’t flicked the next transmission into the bank and erased it from the ship’s combined sensor suite. What was making him frown is that, usually, people tried to spoof very specific things in very discrete ways; to just blast reams of useless data on almost every spectrum…
“?E**— sd@@1@ #$@ !*>> ,<@!1!e?”
It was stupid. You’re basically screaming to anyone with any sort of sensor suite “HERE I AM RIGHT HERE LOOK AT ME” – And that blatant signaling was coming from everywhere. It was bouncing off of the gas giant they orbited, it was ricocheting from satellite planetoid to satellite planetoid, it pinged off of every asteroid and comet, and echoed from the cold planets that were lazily tugged along by their home star’s gravity like errant children.
“|Navigation, what’s our status on mapping?|” Matriarch Tr’Nkwi asked, idly flipping through screens of data on her command station.
“|This giant is fussy, if Itick’’t’s frown is anything to go by-|” teased Rr’it’sqk, tapping through a few screens of her own. “|But he cleaned up the data enough that we’ve got a 77% confidence of mapping everything out there. The holes will be filled by the AI, but the major navigational hazards are all laid out.|”
“|Good. Piloting? Any reason we can’t spin around and continue mapping?|”
“|Negative, Matron. All systems are Blue on our end – the lord has cleared out his nest, so we shouldn’t hit any errant debris.|”
Matriarch Tr’Nkwi spared a moment to look up at the assembled juniors who were excitedly looking over the new telemetry and astronomy data, and smiled. What was it – 300, maybe 400 years ago she was in that same seat, peeping happily over seeing her first binary comet…
“|Well then, with your leave-|”
Itick’’t grunted. It was a little thing, but Tr’Nkwi didn’t get promoted to Matriarch over ignoring the little things. A silent conversation was opened forcefully on a certain bridgeworkers’ implant.
‘|I don’t like it.|’
‘|What don’t you like?|’
‘|I don’t know.|’
‘|Be aware, we’re not the first here. Outside of that, I don’t know.|’
“|Strri’rii, what are our capacitors at?|” the Matriarch asked innocently – innocently to everyone who hadn’t served with her before. A slight, imperceptible ripple of tension went through the crew, and a few sub-routines began to be silently enacted.
“|Capacitors at 85% Ma’am; We’re clear to run on stored power if necessary.|” The Chief Engineer said, his talons clicking a bit too fast over approving various subroutines.
“|Trra’ira?|” Matriarch Tr’Nkwi said, addressing her chief Pilot.
“|…Shields are up, in the off chance we hit an errant comet.|” Trra’ira called out, his hands gripping the control sticks firmly.
“|We’re clear to navigate around the planet, and even backtrack, if we have to.|” Rr’it’sqk said, her co-navigator Tw’Rria silently and furiously calculating emergency jump routes.
Matriarch Tr’Nkwi spared a moment to look up at the assembled juniors who were excitedly looking over the new telemetry and astronomy data, and smiled bittersweetly.
“|Trra’ira, please bring us around.|”
The ship lurched forward, the idly-spooled engine driving the massive ship around the gas giant’s equator. Slowly, imperceptibly slowly, the giant went from dark, to twilight, to day as the ship rounded the equator. Dawn broke on the bridge, and the entire crew was bathed in the white light of the lone star.
Nothing happened. No blueshifted missile headed their way, no sudden shuddering of shields, no overload of the engine – no boarding craft or pirates or mines or anything.
Matron Tr’Nkwi was looking at the newbies – for they had quieted down at the majestic sight – but also at her EM/ECM Lord, whose frown was only deepening. She saw him move in his workstation; he pressed a few buttons, toggled some switches, dismissed some screens and moved a few more inputs to his private implant – And then for the first time in the 300 years they had been serving together she saw something that made her blood run cold.
Itick’’t froze. He didn’t move a muscle, he didn’t blink – and if he wasn’t implanted with a health suite, Tr’Nkwi would think he stopped breathing. Itick’’t’s mouth opened, then shut, then opened again hung open.
“|EM Lord, Report.|” The Matron commanded to the statue, carved in the visage of her crewmate.
“|…EM Lord, Report.|” The Matron commanded again to the dead, as Itick’’t’s jaw moved up and down just a fraction, his normally-reserved feathers beginning to signal…something.
Matriarch Tr’Nkwi leaned forward in her command chair, summoning up the most authoritarian voice she could muster.
“|Itick’’t, Report to your Matron.|” She commanded once more, and once more she was utterly and completely ignored by a man in a trance. The commotion – and the lack of decorum from one of the more notorious hardasses of the crew, had completely and utterly fixed everyone’s attention. With a growl of frustration the Matriarch overrode his console, flinging whatever damnation that had transfixed him to the main screen.
“?-And we still don’t know what it was, Tim!-?”
Matriarch Tr’Nkwi froze, as did the rest of the ship. Suns stopped humming, moons quit their orbit and hung still.
“?Niisiis, kuidas me end selliste sissetungijate vastu kaitseme? Lihtne! Kinnitades oma keldri-?”
On the main screen, overlaid multiple times, were these… things. Yipping, moving, acting, talking things that were all jumbled up and moving into each other; transmissions overlapping dozens, if not hundreds of times.
“?-So then ask yourself, punk: Do I feel lucky? Well, d-?”
The Matron’s mouth hung open slightly, trying to form words – orders of what to do next. The one part of her training manual that was now in effect was the one chapter that pretty much everyone disregarded; First Contact Protocol. She had so many things to do, and they all needed to be done at once – determine the source of the transmissions, determine their intentions, calculate emergency warp skips and then randomize them-
A high-pitched musical note pierced the stunned silence of the crew, snapping them all out of the one-in-a-quadrillion chance they had found themselves in. Matriarch Tr’Nkwi looked around confused, until she tilted her head up-
Tk’il’a had expanded his feathers to his maximum size, his head was tilted all the way back fully exposing his neck, and his frills were standing on end. The grin that split his face-
Matriarch Tr’Nkwi immediately growled a dangerous growl. She couldn’t allow-
The long trilled note continued unabated.
“|Tk’il’a I will ha- I will have you excommunicated if you continue to-|”
As his seatmates began to jostle him from side to side to get him to be silent, Tr’Nkwi came to a realization: It was too late. It was far too late. Tk’il’a was going to be insufferably smug, and they were all going to have to live with it.