Outward: Chapter 28: Leftovers

It turned out that it was in fact the last they saw of the alien.

Excavation of the silo began as soon as the fires were put out. There was plenty of deformed, half-melted metal to be found, but nothing that was even remotely operational or that could be reverse-engineered. This was curious, since metallurgical testing of the fragments that were recovered showed that its melting point was higher than even the hottest of temperatures that could have been generated during the attack. Curious, too, was the complete lack of any trace of the robotic spiders that had charged back down into the silo moments before its utter destruction.

“You know,” MSgt Abernathy said, trying to get more comfortable in the conference room chair, “my first thought was that they were trying to put out the fires, or save something from the inferno, or something along those lines. But now I’m not so sure.”

“What do you think happened?” Col Newmeyer asked.

“It was suicide. The alien didn’t want us getting their hands on any of its technology. It’s the only way to explain the complete destruction of everything of value down there.”

“A dozen missiles will ruin anybody’s day.”

“Against an underground target, though? You’d think something or other would have survived somewhere, if only by chance. Besides, we both saw what it was able to do to our missiles. I don’t think once the two Mackinelly Devices were away, the alien particularly cared about protecting anything it left behind. No doubt it was hitching a ride in one of them.”

“And it didn’t want to leave us with anything we might be able to use to go after it.”

“That’s my guess,” MSgt Abernathy agreed.

“So where are they heading, anyway?” Col Newmeyer asked.

Raskin slid a thumb drive across the table. MSgt Abernathy plugged it into the computer driving the projector and opened the presentation slides on it. The screen displayed a complex graphic filled with spiraling curves and dashed lines in a dozen different colors.

“You’re, uh, going to have to walk me through this one,” Col Newmeyer admitted.

“IIO doesn’t have many operational capabilities yet,” Raskin began, “but the one useful thing NASA does have a fair bit of experience with is tracking and predicting the flight paths of space probes. For instance, did you know we’re still in contact with Voyager 2? These days it’s twice as far out there as Pluto. It’s really something.”

“Fascinating,” Col Newmeyer lied.

“Sorry. Anyway, the red and blue curves are the known paths of MD-1 and MD-2 based on radar readings. There’s a bit of uncertainty in the curves right after launch, since it took a little trial and error to hit upon frequencies that would reflect back to us. The red and blue arrows are the calculated thrust vectors for the objects at those points in its flight, derived from differential analysis of its position correlated with known gravitational effects of nearby bodies.”

“In other words,” MSgt Abernathy explained, catching the glazed look overcoming Col Newmeyer, “the arrows show which way and how hard their engines or whatever they have were thrusting.”

“Ah,” Col Newmeyer said. “They’re trying to speed up.”

“Exactly, Colonel,” Raskin continued. “The orange and green dashed curves give our best prediction of their flight paths over the next several years. You can see now they’re currently performing a gravity assist around the Sun. We think they’ll then circle around Venus to prepare for a second gravity assist around the Sun, then out from there to gravity assist around Jupiter, and from there out of the solar system. That’s all assuming they continue thrusting to increase forward velocity, of course.”

“So if we wanted to engage them, our most likely bet would be in orbit around Venus,” Col Newmeyer said.

“Sir–” MSgt Abernathy interrupted.

“Colonel–” Raskin said simultaneously.

They looked at each other, and Raskin waved MSgt Abernathy to go first.

“Sir,” she said, “the objects are trying to get away from Earth as quickly as they can. We already know the alien got communications out, so attacking the objects won’t stop their home planet from knowing we’re here. There’s nothing to be gained from attacking them.”

“Besides,” Raskin agreed, “we simply don’t have the capability to launch attacks against things in other planets’ orbits. R&D on that capability would take five years before we could even begin to operationalize it, by which point the opportunity will be long gone.”

“I know, I know,” Col Newmeyer replied, “but the Joint Chiefs want to know what our options are. So if the two are leaving, where are they going?”

“Predicting their trajectories out for several decades it would take for them to begin crossing interstellar space is little more then guesswork,” Raskin replied, “but if we assume their objective is a nearby star system, the most likely candidates are Luyten 726-8 and Tau Ceti, each of which are at least ten light years away. But the error bars on those predictions take up about a quarter of the sky.”

“Which means that, including the two stars the alien sent a message to, we’re looking at at least four nearby stars with a suspected alien presence,” MSgt Abernathy said.

“The good news is, it at least gives us at IIO a handful of definite targets,” Raskin added. “Not counting the obvious like Alpha Centauri or Barnard’s Star.”

“But in the meantime,” Col Newmeyer said, “we’re left with looking for any remaining footholds the alien may still have on Earth.”

“Still no news on that front, sir,” MSgt Abernathy reported.

It was true. If there still was a vast underground alien presence, it wasn’t tipping its hand. Excavation of the silo didn’t give any clues. Seismic monitoring devices were being installed at military bases across the country in the hopes of detecting any signs of silos being hollowed out underneath the surface, but so far they hadn’t detected anything. And in the absence of any lucky breaks like someone tripping over another alien antenna device like the one SrA Roberts had found, they didn’t have anything else to go off of.

Even that site had gone cold, too. United States Exosolar Command, the new sub-unified command under United States Strategic Command that succeeded AFEXOCOM, found a pretense for digging up the entire cul-de-sac where that antenna, now the only mostly-intact relic of the alien’s technology, had been recovered. The search turned up nothing, not even the rest of the support pole the antenna had connected to. It lent credence to the theory that the alien destroyed all the technology it had left behind following its departure.

“They say no news is good news,” Raskin said. “As long as you keep searching for that bad news, I mean.”

Col Newmeyer nodded. “Let’s hope General Trellis agrees.”

Terry Belford was dead.

At least, he was as good as dead. He had emptied as much money as he could carry out of his bank accounts and gone into hiding three days after the Great Crash, the 40% drop that rocked Wall Street in a single afternoon when Jupiter Dynamic Financial Trading LLC’s servers melted down all at once, sending all the other, lesser high-frequency traders into a blind panic.

Terry used to be known as the “miracle quant”, the young man who took Wall Street by storm with a pocket full of algorithms that had made Jupiter the dominant player in the market. And in the days after the Great Crash, when he repeatedly tried and failed to get them working again, he earned many other nicknames, none of which were even remotely printable.

He remembered those days, drenched with sweat despite standing on top of a vent blasting frigid air into a sixty-degree server room, praying to any gods that might be within earshot to please let the servers boot back up. Something had come in and wiped their hard drives clean of his software. Getting a copy of it recovered from the offline backup servers hadn’t been a problem, but getting it back up and running had proved impossible. What should have caused the servers to resume making millions of stock market trades a minute instead left them doing nothing but showing the spinning baton character that ticked off the last seconds of Terry’s employment.

Jupiter itself survived, of course. Their servers’ catastrophic failure did so much damage to the market that the government had had no choice but to bail it out. The executives either weathered the storm or deployed their golden parachutes. Terry, however, despite having been on pace to become a trillionaire, was not an executive. Instead, he was the personification of the Great Crash.

Now Terry found himself once again huddled in his apartment, poring over the copy of his code he had always kept hidden away for himself, trying to figure out how to get it working again. He couldn’t go back to Jupiter, but nothing said he couldn’t start his own firm once he had recovered the magic.

And magic it was. He never revealed the secret that made the algorithms so effective, since he had no idea how they actually worked. The code had appeared on Jupiter’s servers just as mysteriously as it had vanished, and Terry had merely been in the right place at the right time to take credit for it once it became apparent what it did.

But to make it work again, Terry would need to understand not just what it did, but how it did it. He spent days on end hunched over his computers, trying to make sense of it all with debuggers and disassemblers and static analyzers. The floor around him was strewn with manuals for operating systems and hardware architectures, and the parts that weren’t covered with those were covered instead with printouts and hastily-scribbled diagrams.

None of it was of any help. The code — binary only, of course — was baffling. None of the patterns matched anything a compiler would generate or that even the beardiest guru would write directly in assembly. No person would ever create something like that, right minded or otherwise. It was downright alien.

But Terry had nothing but time. Time, and massive piles of cash that ensured he wouldn’t need to seek out a real job to support himself. He would eventually figure the code out. And once he had, he’d take the world by storm.

Chapter word count: 1,742 (+75)
Total word count: 49,637 / 50,000 (99.274%)

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