Outward: Chapter 22: Connections

MSgt Abernathy, armed with a large thermos full of coffee, opened the door to the potluck office. The building had been constructed with the intent of the office being used by, as the name implied, an officer. However, given how AFEXOCOM was still staffed by a virtual skeleton crew, it was officially unoccupied. Unofficially, it got used for whatever the moment’s need was. Usually this meant it was an atypically cramped meeting room. Sometimes it was a temporary storeroom. Lately it had been serving as MSgt Abernathy’s work lab.

She entered the lab to find SrA Roberts standing guard over the antenna on a stick lying on the table.

“Good morning, Sergeant,” he said. “It is morning, correct?”

“Half past seven,” MSgt Abernathy replied. Without any windows, it could be difficult to judge the passage of time in the room. It hadn’t been intended for a particularly high-ranking officer. “What time did you finally get in last night?”

“Around three o’clock,” SrA Roberts replied. “I wanted to make sure there weren’t any surprises from whatever this thing is.” He stifled a yawn.

“Good idea.” She held her thermos out towards him. “You should either take this or take a nap.”

“Are you sure?” he asked.

MSgt Abernathy reconsidered. “You’re right, what was I thinking. I need this. You go hit the sack. I should be able to handle things from here.”

“Yes, Sergeant,” he replied before showing himself out before she had a chance to reconsider.

MSgt Abernathy set the coffee down on the table as she took a seat and considered the object SrA Roberts had recovered that night. She had had some misgivings when relaying Col Newmeyer’s decision to take it and bring it back here for study, even despite the checking she had done to make sure it didn’t belong to anybody, but now that she could see it in person, she was glad she hadn’t objected too strenuously.

On a general level, the object definitely resembled some kind of long-range antenna, but none of the details quite made sense. The elongated tube that looked like it should be the antenna itself was an inch and a half thick in diameter and solid, not a slender piece of metal like a more conventional antenna. And despite it apparently being used to connect to a relatively distant Wi-Fi network, it wasn’t a cantenna either; it was solid, and too thin to work for that even if it were open on one end.

The curved piece on the back end was odd too. An initial glance would identify it as a parabolic reflector, but it was too small to be very effective at catching any signals that passed the antenna itself. Nor was it, as closer measurement showed, actually parabolic, or any other conic section that would reflect and focus radio waves very well.

If MSgt Abernathy didn’t know any better, she would have thought someone had cargo culted the contraption, trying to construct an antenna only from having seen pictures of other antennas and without understanding any of the theory that went into their design. But she did know better, and had megabytes worth of intercepted Wi-Fi traffic that was being transmitted between it and the base station. It worked, or at least used to work before it had been unceremoniously broken off of whatever it had connected to. The only credible hypothesis she could come up with at this point was that whoever had designed it had a far different but no less effective approach to antenna design than anyone else on the planet.

That was good enough for her to operate under the assumption it was alien technology.

If only she had the tools and resources needed to fully appreciate how it worked. Applied Optics Group had been understandably reluctant to renew their AFEXOCOM contract, and the only two other bidders had requested three digits more than AFEXOCOM had the budget to pay them. All of which meant that when it came to electromagnetic analysis of suspected alien devices, she was the stuckee.

MSgt Abernathy briefly fantasized about tormenting the would-be contractors with the device. See what you could be reverse engineering right now, making who knows what discoveries you could make that would put you centuries ahead of your competitors, if only you had made a more reasonable bid?

Once she was done with that, she picked up the phone and checked if she’d be able to stop by the metal shop that morning to try cutting it in half.

When she was done with the call, she looked at the base of the support pole. She was unable to figure out how any of it was supposed to work. There wasn’t anything that looked like the equivalent of wires of fiber-optic cable running down along it, but the cross section also wasn’t uniform enough to suggest it was just there to anchor the device to the ground. Hopefully a cross-section of the antenna-like part itself would be more enlightening.

Having an hour to kill before her appointment with the metal shop, she turned her attention to the computer where she had been keeping all the information AFEXOCOM had been able to gather so far.

She had already exhausted the value of the Wi-Fi traffic SrA Roberts had sent her the previous afternoon. Once the usual local network chatter had been filtered out, most of the traffic to and from the device sitting on the table was with an IP address that was owned by Jupiter Dynamic Financial Trading LLC, which was certainly interesting. Unfortunately, the payloads of the packets were encrypted, which meant figuring out what was actually being sent back and forth was probably a lost cause.

Whatever it was they were dealing with it, there was no doubt in her mind that it was intelligent. She had been pretty sure of it back when she had communicated with the Mackinelly Device, although during the debriefing that followed the incident she had been forced to concede it could have just been something preprogrammed into the device. If you detect radio signals with certain parameters, then transmit the following sequence. There was intelligence behind such a program, obviously, but it wasn’t quite the same as the device itself being intelligent.

But this was different. The device, and especially whatever was left of it now, certainly hadn’t arrived on Earth knowing how to communicate via 802.11g, or Internet Protocol, or Hypertext Transport Protocol, or Secure Sockets Layer, yet the packet capture clearly showed it doing all of those. Over the course of a year, and probably much less than a year, it had gone from counting to us via radio pulses to using the Internet to amass wealth in the stock market and use it to purchase time on the very same orbital weapon platform that had nearly destroyed it. If that were all somehow a preprogrammed response, MSgt Abernathy couldn’t see how you could avoid classifying that program as intelligent in its own right.

She looked again at the logs from the MOJO firing control system. The log format was all text based, but figuring out what the various fields meant and how to parse them, where one field ended and the next begin, had made her progress figuring out the two requests made by the thing on the table difficult. Those two records stood out from the rest, being easily a hundred thousand times the size of the others. They contained enormous sequences of numbers in positions where the other records had only a few. If only there were a way to ask the thing on the table what it had done….

A piece of that last thought stuck in her mind. She almost had it, she could feel it. She stared at the seemingly endless sequences of numbers, alternating large and small but always fluctuating their values. Her intuition screamed that there was a pattern buried in there somewhere, if only she could articulate what that pattern was. There was enough regularity to it, on a large enough scale it might repeat with some….

The realization hit. She looked at the clock. Fifteen minutes before the metal shop would be ready, and half an hour before Col Newmeyer would be arriving. But that was local time.

MSgt Abernathy dialed the phone and waited impatiently as it rang.

“NASA IIO, Raskin speaking,” the other end answered.

“It’s me, Abernathy,” she replied. “Switch to a secure line.”

Once they had, she continued, “It was using MOJO to phone home.”

“I, uh, I know that’s we were both thinking,” Raskin replied, taken a bit aback by MSgt Abernathy’s abruptness, “but what makes you so sure now?”

“Transmission frequencies. That’s what the numbers in the logs are. Every other firing of MOJO used one, maybe two frequencies. If you’re just trying to blow something up, blasting a carrier wave is good enough. But to communicate, you have to modulate it. Here, dozens of times a second.”

“It can do that?”

“Apparently. Think about it. The transmission beam’s supposed to hardly spread out at all between the satellite and the ground, but it can’t be perfect. Fire it at something ten light years or so away, it’s going to be spread out, but maybe all that energy will only be spread out over a solar system. Pump out enough energy, and have something on the other end listening for exactly what you’re going to send, I bet it would work.”

“Could be.”

“Also, we got our hands on the mystery device that sent the requests to MOJO in the first place. It’s been talking to Jupiter too.”

“That’s not all that surprising, either, given what we know about the money.”

“The device is also clearly alien.”

“Clearly?” Raskin asked.

“No one in their right mind would design an antenna like this, unless they’re some kind of savant. I’m working on trying to figure out how it’s supposed to work at all.”

“Someone’s been busy.”

“Me or it, sir?”

“Good point,” Raskin conceded. Then, thinking aloud, he continued, “where again did you say the device was found?”

“Suburbs about a hundred miles or so south of base.”

“You know,” Raskin said slowly, “that’s an awfully long way away from where the Mackinelly Device was at before we destroyed it.”

“About two hundred miles, give or take.”

“I doubt it went all that way just to steal someone’s Internet.”


“What if it didn’t just go down there. Not specifically, at least. What if it were simply spreading, and we just happened to find it down there first.”

“Right,” MSgt Abernathy said, starting to see where Raskin was leading.

“If I were a betting man, I’d say that’s not the only one out there. And if everything’s working towards a common goal, the other antennas may have connected to the MOJO system and Jupiter from elsewhere, too.”

“Not MOJO, sir. Nothing else like the two events showed up in the logs.”

“That’s a pretty small subset of the overall logs from Forney Junip’s systems. And speaking of which, you wouldn’t believe who just happens to be a principle investor behind our buddies at Jupiter, as it turns out. Mr. Forney Junip himself, Joseph Geemler. I bet he has some pull over there, if we could bring some pressure on him.”

“But to invoke AFEXOCOM authority, we’d have to go public–”

“Sergeant, this is Washington. There are other ways to twist someone’s arm, and I can think of a few people who could be persuaded to help.”

Chapter word count: 1,927 (+260)
Total word count: 38,940 / 50,000 (77.88%)

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