Outward: Chapter 14: Early Warning

Earl Raskin facepalmed. “You cannot possibly be serious,” he muttered into his hand.

“We need to have a bold vision to drive the budgeting process for the next ten years,” Ganett protested. “This is the time to get Congress to commit to the necessary funding, while we still have their attention, before we drop back off the radar screen.”

“The time for that was twelve months ago,” Riggs added, trying to find a way to lean back at the conference table. “Back when everyone was talking about it.”

“Well, it’s hardly my fault it took nine months for them to break the filibuster and fund our steering committee as-is,” Ganett said. “All the more reason to go big now, before it gets even worse.”

“There’s dreaming big, and then there’s being delusional,” Raskin countered. “If you take that plan to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, you’ll be laughed out of the room, and we’ll be dead in the water.”

“We won’t even be able to afford decent chairs,” added Riggs.

“Look,” Ganett said, erasing the marker scrawls off the whiteboard, “you have to understand the scope of the problem we’re dealing with here.”

Raskin rolled his eyes. Ganett may have had impressive credentials, but the problem was he was a NASA lifer. He saw its new Interstellar Intelligence Office as a way to finally get funding for the deep-space missions stuck on his drawing board for the next decade, and he was going to go for broke. And break them in the process.

He glanced across the table at Riggs. Career bureaucrat, he could tell. No idea how to handle himself in a chair that didn’t cost five hundred dollars. But he might be able to be made to listen to reason, if he could be kept open to the perspective of an outsider like Raskin.

“This,” Ganett continued, drawing a circle with a few squiggles in it, “is Earth. This,” he drew a slightly larger circle around it, “is orbit. And this,” he swept his arm across the rest of the board, “is our area of responsibility. The entire universe, minus some three billion trillion cubic kilometers. Big mission, big cost.”

“That’s not going to be enough to convince anybody,” Riggs said.

“Ah, but let me continue. Fortunately, most of that is empty space. Modulo things like the interstellar medium, virtual particle pairs, a bit of dark matter and dark energy, and so on.”

“You going to lose them with that,” Raskin warned.

“My point is, most of that volume we don’t have to worry about. Our focus needs to be on possible points of origin for alien activity: other stars. And assuming superluminal travel is impossible, the nearby neighborhood of stars serves as a choke point for any alien movement towards Earth.” Ganett started drawing scattered points on the board. “Alpha Centauri. Barnard’s Star. Wolf 359. A few others. Focus on those points, and we’ll have a ten light year radius early-warning system to detect aliens before they even set foot in our solar system.”

“Wait,” interrupted Riggs, “remind me again why they wouldn’t just ignore those stars and fly straight here?”

“They’d need to refuel, so to speak. The longer the distance, the bigger the load of fuel or food or whatever they’d need to lug around with them, which increases mass, which increases the fuel needed, and so on. The most likely course of action for them would be to hop from star to star and mine any planets there for resources before continuing.” He drew lines connecting the points on the board. “The laws of physics provide a bounty of choke points to focus our collection on.”

“I’m not saying this is a bad idea per se,” Raskin said, “or that it shouldn’t be our guiding vision for the rest of the century. But this is awfully pie-in-the-sky to ask for Congressional funding on yet.”

“Well, obviously, a big part of the initial budget with be for R&D.”

“And in the meantime, we’d have absolutely nothing in place as an early-warning system until we resolve the many, many hurdles to launching a fleet of interstellar probes.”

“I think you’re understating our current level of preparedness,” Riggs said. “We have pictures of last year’s alien ship from when it was still in orbit.”

“Picture,” Raskin corrected. “Singular. Taken by someone who was trying to photograph a star a hundred light years away. The Mackinelly Device was only found in it because we were able to narrow down where in the sky it might have been found.” Plus, the guy he had contracted to do the search never got back to him about it in the first place, and Raskin had only found it when the guy’s forum posting popped up in his Google Alerts. “Information we were only able to get after it had already landed. That’s forensics, not early warning.”

“What do you suggest we do?”

“Massively ramp up the near-Earth object detection program, and task it to look for alien craft in addition to rogue asteroids. It’s much the same problem space, but alien craft are likely to have a much higher albedo, which helps even more.”

“But then we’ll only find out about them when they’re on Earth doorstep!” complained Ganett.

“Whereas right now we can’t detect them until they’re already crashing on our couch! I’m not saying the NEOs should be our only project. We do need R&D to look at the numerous challenges for interstellar probes.” Raskin started ticking them off on his fingers. “Fully autonomous guidance systems. Long-lived power generation systems. Extreme-gain antennas. Physical self-repair mechanisms. And, to a lesser extent, propulsion systems that can approach relativistic speeds, and that can brake quickly enough to allow orbital insertion afterwards. But,” he stressed, “we need to make sure we can meet immediate needs first, before we sink too much money in the future.”

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Riggs said. He lurched backwards in his chair, looked confused for a moment, then lifted it slightly so he could slide its non-wheeled feet backwards on the carpet to let him get up from the table. “We’ll meet again tomorrow and I’ll run my proposed presentation the House Committee by you for your input.”

Raskin followed him out of the makeshift conference room, out of the hastily constructed secure area in the center of the office building, and returned to his office.

“Good afternoon, sir,” a familiar voice greeted him once he had stepped through the door.

“Sergeant!” he exclaimed. “Well, this is a surprise! Please, have a seat. How have you been?”

“Can’t complain, sir. Plenty of work to keep us busy these days. No more time for Movie Nights, though, I’m afraid.”

“Well, you win some, you lose some. Oh!” he said, noticing her sleeve. “Congratulations on the promotion, Master Sergeant.”

“Thank you, sir,” MSgt Abernathy smiled.

“No need to call me ‘sir’ anymore, you know.”

“No, sir. You didn’t come out so bad yourself.”

“Yes, well,” Raskin shrugged. “From what I heard the brass had some interesting discussions over what to do with me after all of it. Apparently some of them wanted my head for the situation getting as out of control as it almost did, but my guess is they couldn’t figure out a way to point the finger at me without raising question as to why they let a lowly major be in charge of something like that. I suspect the honorable discharge was to save face all around. So here I am now, sort of an in-house consultant for NASA.”

“Well, Col Newmeyer seems to respect the work you did there,” MSgt Abernathy replied.

“Who?”

“The new AFEXOCOM commander. Probably the last one, too. Rumor has it they’re planning on rolling up into USSTRATCOM one of these days.”

“Doesn’t surprise me in the least. I guess now that everyone knows aliens do exist, the mission has a lot more respectability.”

“Alien is the new cyber.”

“What does surprise me, though, is finding you here in Washington. I presume this isn’t merely a social call.”

“How do you figure?”

“The folder full of papers in your lap. And how security wouldn’t let just anyone come in off the street.”

“No, sir.”

“Well?”

MSgt Abernathy got up and shut the door to Raskin’s office. “How busy would you say you currently are?”

“Eh,” Raskin replied. “It comes and goes. Lots of talk and meetings and strategizing, not a whole lot of actual work work.” He paused. “Why?”

“Col Newmeyer wants to bring you on as a private consultant to us. Part-time, of course. Possibly some travel involved.”

“I don’t suppose you had a hand in any of this?”

“Well,” MSgt Abernathy feigned nonchalance, “I might have made a recommendation or two. But the truth is, we really could use someone with your experience on one of our current projects.”

“Oh? What is it?”

MSgt Abernathy slid the folder across his desk.

Raskin opened it up and leafed through the pages inside. “These… aren’t actually telling me anyway. They’re all read-in agreements.”

“That’s correct, sir. Col Newmeyer believes there’s a time and a place for openness. In this case, I can’t say I disagree.”

Raskin paused mid-page flip. “Huh. I don’t suppose you could give me a hint?”

“Unfortunately not, sir. Especially not here. But you do want to sign those papers.”

“Oh?”

“How long would you say we worked together?”

Raskin thought. “A year and a half, at least. Just the two of us at AFEXOCOM.”

“Right. You get a pretty good feel for a person in that kind of situation. That’s how I know you’ll want in on this. I know you don’t like to leave unfinished business behind.”

“Huh.”

“In general, I mean. Of course.”

Raskin gave her a curious look.

“Also,” MSgt Abernathy continued, playing her ace in the hole, “it would make Col Anchower livid to know you were back.”

“Hmmm,” Raskin said, leaning back. “You know, now that I’m not an officer any more, I wouldn’t be required to take any more of his crap.”

“Your words, not mine, sir.”

Raskin reached forward to pick up a pen.

“The flight back out to base leaves in two hours,” MSgt Abernathy said. “I’ve got the car waiting outside.”


Chapter word count: 1,714 (+47)
Total word count: 24,771 / 50,000 (49.542%)

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