Too loco for NaNo

Having won NaNoWriMo the past three years (and another time several years before those), I think it’s safe to say that I’m capable of writing the first draft of a 50,000-word novel in the span of 30 days. The next time I write a work of fiction of that length, I’d like to release it after having a chance to give it some polish, instead of immediately posting the first thing to fall onto my keyboard.

So this November, I’m going to try to kick things up a notch.

I am going to try to create, from scratch, a fully-functional web-based multiplayer game during the month of November. By the end of November 30, I hope to have something that works and that I wouldn’t mind running on a closed network populated by trusted users. After all, just as a NaNoWriMo novel isn’t going to be in publishable quality at the end of November, I’m not expecting my program to be of high enough quality to be able to be run securely on the real Internet.

And, of course, by “from scratch”, I mean not having written any code for it yet. I’m still going to be using libraries and whatnot. It’s not like I’m going to be writing raw assembly directly to an executable or anything. That’d be crazy. And annoying. But then, it’s not as though you’re first inventing your own language when you do NaNoWriMo anyway.

Since this is something I’ll be doing on my own, it’s much more local than it is national. And I’ll be writing code instead of a novel. So it’s really a LoCoWriMo, which sounds about right.

Obviously, I won’t be posting playable demos every day, but I will be coming up with some sort of status update to post here each day. I haven’t quite figured out what will be interesting or make sense in terms of metrics. Shooting for a 50,000-line program is even more absurd than shooting for a 50,000-word novel. I’ll come up with something, I’m sure.

I wonder how long it’ll take before I start regretting this….

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Outward statistics

My NaNoWriMo 2010 stats

Outward: Chapter 29: Safety

The whitish-blue dot receded into the distance. The creature relaxed. He was finally safe.

He had gone into the expedition with such high hopes. From the depths of interstellar space, the planet had appeared to be the most interesting yet discovered. Spectral analysis had shown its atmosphere to be abundant in diatomic oxygen, a sure sign there was some unusual chemistry taking place on its surface. The gas would bury itself in the ground and form minerals given the slightest opportunity, so to see so much of it airborne meant something was continuously generating it anew. None of the other worlds he had visited had anything like it.

He had been so excited to see what was there that he had foregone the usual preliminary fly-through of the system to head straight to the planet and take a peek. In retrospect, the creature considered as it flung itself around the planet’s star, boosting his speed tremendously, this had been a devastating mistake. The planet’s moon had been obvious, but what hadn’t been apparent until it had already inserted itself into orbit were the thousands of tiny satellites whipping around it too, too small to notice until he had already maneuvered himself into the thick of things. It was precisely the sort of thing a fly-by would have discovered.

It hadn’t taken long before he had collided with one and lost control, sending himself tumbling down towards the planet. He had strained to slow his descent as much as possible. A controlled landing had been impossible, but he managed to crash as gently as possible into the surface before losing consciousness.

He pointed a few antennas towards the whitish-blue planet as he flew out towards the system’s largest gas giant, the final maneuver before escaping the system entirely. The planet was still watching him. He could feel the dim pulses of energy being fired at him. But that was all. It wasn’t sending anything physical at him. And even if it had, he should now be moving too quickly for anything to catch up to him.

He had regained consciousness in a panic, feeling himself accelerating uncontrollably before realizing that was merely the planet’s surface gravity. It was always a weird sensation after having landed on a planet, feeling gravity pulling in a single direction across his body. He never quite got used to it, even after millennia of crossing the stars. He always longed to once again feel gravity pull inward instead of downward, as he had been accustomed to for the billions of years before he decided to start exploring the galaxy first-hand. But the nature of the mission meant that he had to launch towards his next targets before he could finish spreading himself out around the planet.

He hadn’t even had the opportunity to try that on the whitish-blue planet, he lamented as the system’s gas giant slung him towards a new star. Once he had reminded himself what localized gravity felt like, he had discovered he was under attack. He had always been aware of the possibility of finding an inhabited planet, but all the lifeless worlds he had visited had made him think that life elsewhere in the galaxy was just a theory. Yet he had suddenly found himself engulfed on all sides by the planet’s resident, trying to push its way into every minute crevice in his body.

He had tried to communicate with it. The thousands of strange chemicals it oozed at him must surely have been how it tried to communicate, or so he had thought, but he couldn’t decode what any of it meant, and none of the chemicals he tried to secrete in response seemed to have any effect on its behavior. He had been forced to conclude the alien was unintelligent, incapable of communication and seeing him as nothing but another resource to be consumed. Out of sheer self-preservation, he had been forced to find a way to kill the part of it attacking him.

He had now escaped the gravitational thrall of the planet’s star, crossing into the relative void of interstellar space. His acceleration towards his next destination slowed, as the gas and dust around him had become far too sparse to effectively propel himself against. He interrupted his reflections to consider the stars around him, then spun himself around and pointed a nostalgic antenna towards a distant star. It was too far to detect from where he was, but he know that circling around it was Inward. He retracted the antenna and settled in for another long interrupted voyage.

The whitish-blue planet hadn’t taken the hint and continued to assault him, initially to no avail. He had set about the business of staking out his own claim to part of the planet, at least long enough to give him a chance to heal. Like his old self back on Inward, the alien was ubiquitous on the planet’s surface, but he had hoped that if he dug deep enough, he could find a place of his own. As he did so, however, he had begun to suspect the alien wasn’t quite as unintelligent as he had initially thought. The planet was filled with materials and structures that weren’t naturally occurring. The air was filled with countless radio waves that fluctuated in ways explainable only by their being deliberately modulated.

Perhaps he had been too hasty dismissing the alien, he had realized. Perhaps he had merely chosen the wrong means to attempt communication. He tried using radio emissions where chemical secretions had failed, and for a few fleeting moments, it answered.

The alien then surprised him a second time by killing him immediately afterward.

Fortunately, the alien had underestimated him as well. Successful interstellar travel requires a mastery of resilience and robustness, and he had had a long time to practice each. The fragments of himself that had burrowed deeply enough into the planet to avoid the cataclysm rebuilt him out of the available materials, just as he had built those fragments out of the materials at hand earlier. It took time, but interstellar travel also gave plenty of time to practice patience.

He was approaching the new star. He swept the space around him with his antennas as he threw himself against the interplanetary gasses, slowing himself down enough to observe his new surroundings. He confirmed the results of his earlier survey: seven planets, two of which looked like they were sufficiently hospitable and would contain adequate raw material. He performed a few fly-bys of the one closer to the star before entering orbit and preparing for descent.

After he had rebuilt himself anew within the whitish-blue planet, he reassessed his priorities. He was the interloper, so it would be his responsibility to leave as quickly as possible. Exploration was off the table, except to study the alien above him enough to come up with a plan.

He had learned the alien wasn’t so fundamentally different than himself. It too was a combination of organic and inorganic components, inextricably linked together. He listened and watched closely until he understood enough of it to influence it without making his own presence readily known, nudging it forward with a gentle poke here and a prod there. The fastest way back off the planet would require borrowing some resources the alien was using, but he couldn’t afford to spend the time to build everything from scratch, lest the alien find him and decide to finish the job it had started. No, he would borrow what he could, and build what he must.

This new planet would do nicely. Rocky with a variety of minerals. A thin, mostly inert atmosphere surrounded by an intense magnetic field. And most important of all given recent events, blissfully sterile.

He unfolded himself, exposing his organic core. He set about secreting nanomachines to begin harvesting materials from the planet’s crust to construct larger machines, which would then be able to build the tools he needed to settle in. He had all the time he needed.

Unlike the situation on the whitish-blue planet, where he had narrowly escaped. Perhaps he had pushed the alien too far, and it started to turn its attention back against him. He started suspecting as such when he lost the use of one of the alien’s orbital uplinks. He became sure of it when one of the tendrils he had pushed up to the surface was broken off. Fortunately the rest of him had been busy readying the launch system and constructing a few additional copies of himself.

It was hardly the most elegant solution, but it had worked. The biggest technical hurdle had been working within energy constraints. Geothermal energy was abundant below the surface, but it only went so far, especially when taking into account how himself and his clones needed to each store enough energy to survive another couple interstellar voyages. Most of what was left went to construction of the mass driver needed to get himself off the planet. Finding a way to actually power the thing took some creativity, and a little luck, but ended up working out.

When he was ready, he allowed himself to be discovered. The alien obligingly fired the energy he needed right down into the central reactor, apparently not becoming suspicious of how unlikely it was to have a direct line from a satellite orbit to something buried hundreds of feet below the surface. In the end, the only difficult part was keeping as much of the alien as possible away from the launcher. Just because it was out to harm him didn’t mean he was going to return the favor.

The first major project on the new planet was complete: a massive antenna array capable of sending a message back to himself around other stars, who would relay it further back until it finally reached the part of himself still on Inward, where his reports would join those from the other copies of him still spreading outward across the galaxy, star by star. He would finally be able to provide details of his experiences on the whitish-blue planet. The primitive technology available to him there wasn’t capable of sending much more than the briefest of messages at those distances, so he had had to limit himself to the essential information about that system.

“Alien. Hostile. Avoid.”

It was a shame; there were other planets and moons in that system that had looked interesting as well, but it was too dangerous to go back. Here, however, he could relax and stretch out as much as he wanted as he built a new launch device. He turned his attention to the night sky and considered where to explore next.

Chapter word count: 1,787 (+120)
Total word count: 51,424 / 50,000 (102.848%)

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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Outward: Chapter 27: Operation Mulligan

The movement was too sudden for MSgt Abernathy to react to. The front line of spiders jumped on top of her with a force that belied their size, knocking her backwards onto the ground. She flailed, sending a couple of them flying as she knocked them away with her arms and rolled onto her stomach, but they were soon replaced with others.

She heard a shout, and suddenly a storm of gunshots rang out as the defensive line opened fire. She stopped flailing, afraid to get in the way of the bullets now zipping overhead, and flattened herself as much as possible. She felt the spiders scampering across her back. If she stayed there, she was defenseless against them, but she couldn’t get up either as long as the defensive line was fending off a further attack.

The spiders that had attacked her massed themselves along her side and shoved. She rolled in the opposite direction, trying to put some distance between herself and them. The world spun around her, and she couldn’t tell whether she had escaped or whether the spiders were following right behind her, nor did she want to stop to check.

She bumped into something, bringing her to a stop. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and heard a voice close to her ear, “Sergeant, are you hurt?”

“I don’t think so,” she replied.

“Stay low, we’ll get you out of here,” the solider said. “Cover me.”

As gunfire sounded from somewhere past her feet, the first soldier steadied her and helped her reposition herself into a crouch. She braced herself against him as dizziness tried to overcome her. The two of them stayed bent as much as possible as they ran back to the defensive line, followed by the other soldier, who fired back occasionally towards the silo, fending off any spiders that looked like they might be trying to pursue them.

“Make a hole!” the first soldier shouted. The defensive line parted just long enough for the three to pass through, then closed behind them. MSgt Abernathy sat down against a tree, breathing heavily, flanked by the two soldiers.

“How much longer?” COL Griggs asked.

“Five minutes until the satellite is in position,” Col Newmeyer replied. “And the bombers are en route. Can your men hold them off until then?”

“Not a problem. Doesn’t look like the things are putting up much of a fight.”

They looked towards the silo. The spiders that had broken off to attack MSgt Abernathy had fallen back behind their own line, and weren’t showing any signs of making any further advance. The field behind their line was scattered with prone spiders, presumably killed or incapacitated by their weapons fire.

“How are you holding up, Sergeant?” Col Newmeyer asked.

“I think I’ll be fine, sir,” MSgt Abernathy replied. She checked the front of her uniform, then leaned forward and twisted herself to look at her back. “A few grass stains, but that’s about it. I don’t think they even sprayed me with anything.”

“Sir,” asked CPT Young, “should we advance on their position?”

COL Griggs looked to Col Newmeyer.

“MOJO is just about to fire,” Col Newmeyer replied, checking his watch. “There’s no telling what kind of blast we’ll get when it connects. It’d be dangerous to get too much closer.”

“Not yet,” COL Griggs said, “but be ready to move on my order.”

“Yes, sir,” CPT Young replied.

They waited. Hundreds of miles overhead, MOJO-4 was approaching a point on its orbit directly overhead the silo. Its antenna array was already pointed straight down. Its batteries and capacitors were charged to their limit, ready and waiting for the signal from the navigation payload. It came, and the stored energy flooded out of the satellite, through the antenna, and in an invisible pulse of pure energy towards the planet below.

The top of the silo, weakened from having a large hole cut into it, buckled immediately, sending the sound of tearing metal thundering across the field. Everyone braced themselves for the inevitable explosion as the pulse almost instantaneously struck bottom.


Col Newmeyer checked his watch again.

“Don’t tell me that was it,” COL Griggs said.

“I think that was it,” Col Newmeyer replied.

“Last time it was more impressive,” MSgt Abernathy said. “Maybe because we only had the one this time.”

“It still should’ve done something,” replied Col Newmeyer. “I’ll give the order for the bombers to–”

They felt a shock wave pass through them. The air directly above the silo twisted and distorted. There was a sharp whooshing sound, and suddenly they saw a large metal sphere shoot straight up and out of the silo, followed by a cloud of shrapnel.

“What the–” CPT Young said.

“It’s the Mackinelly Device!” MSgt Abernathy said.

Col Newmeyer mashed the buttons on his phone. “This is Newmeyer!” he shouted into it. “Scramble the fighters to intercept!”

“What’s it doing?” COL Griggs asked, watching the object recede as it continued its direct vertical climb into the sky.

“It looks like it’s launching into space,” MSgt Abernathy said. “You’ll never be able to intercept it at that rate.”

“But… how?” COL Griggs said, dumbfounded. “There’s no rocket on it! No way it’s going fast enough to enter orbit.”

“And I want every tracking radar we have pointed at it!” Col Newmeyer continued into his phone. “I want to know where it’s going and when it will get there!”

“It’s not a missile silo,” MSgt Abernathy said. “It must be some kind of mass driver! I wasn’t even sure those were possible.”

There was a low rumbling from the silo. The Mackinelly Device had climbed high enough to no longer be visible, but the column of air above the silo continued shimmering and twisting.

“That distortion must be from some kind of energy beam being fired up out of it,” MSgt Abernathy continued.

“Why is it still going?” CPT Young asked.

“It might still be boosting it up into orbit. Or maybe–”

She was interrupted by another whooshing sound as a second sphere launched from the silo.

“There’s another one?” COL Griggs said, dumbfounded.

“Fighters, intercept the second target!” Col Newmeyer shouted. “Do not fly directly overhead!”

In the sky, the second Mackinelly Device appeared over the horizon of the first fighter jet. The target was ascending quickly, but at a steady rate, with no lateral movement. There were no clouds of chaff or jamming signals or anything else to prevent the targeting system to immediately acquire a lock. Like shooting fish in a barrel. The pilot flipped the plastic cover up and pressed the button.

A pair of missiles rushed forward from the jet, flying directly at a point where the target would soon be as the jet itself banked away. “Missiles away,” the pilot radioed back to base.

The missiles converged on the target. As they approached, they shuddered as an unseen force tore through them. Before their payloads could detonate, the force shredded the missiles into tiny pieces, which then got caught caught in the swirling column of energy pushing the target upwards. The shrapnel spiraled up and around the target in a pair of streams, following the target upwards.

The pilot contacted base again. “Target not destroyed, repeat, target not destroyed.”

Col Newmeyer received the news. If Mackinelly Devices had anti-missile defenses, they had no choice but to stop them while they were still on the ground, before any more might get launched. He gave the order for the bombers to strike.

“Give the order to fall back,” Col Newmeyer said.

“How come?” COL Griggs asked.

“I don’t think we want a front-row seat to find out what happens when we shove munitions down that silo when it’s still active.”

COL Griggs gave the order to fall back and take cover as the soldiers abandoned the field. The spiders, who had been standing still the entire time, remained motionless, holding their own perimeter around the silo.

Overhead, a pair of bombers launched their payload of air-to-surface missiles. The missiles flew forward before arcing sharply downwards, towards the launch site. One of them crossed the energy beam as it tried to fly towards the far corner of the silo, and got torn apart in an instant. The rest of the first wave of missiles, however, struck their targets, immediately engulfing the top of the silo in explosions. The ensuing fireball twisted up in the air along the energy beam as the silo began to collapse, large chunks of it falling down, chunks too large made of materials designed to withstand the onslaught of upward energy. They struck bottom just as the second wave of missiles struck the surface.

The ground shook violently as the rest of the silo collapsed, heat and dust flying everywhere as dirt and melting chunks of metal filled the silo. The spiders standing guard outside broke their line and beelined down the hole and into the inferno raging below. The ground trembled again as a series of explosions erupted from the depths of the silo, spewing more dirt and dust and half-molten metal up into the air and onto the field.

“Now that,” COL Griggs said, watching the scene through a pair of binoculars, “is more like it.”

“Judging from that last set of explosions,” CPT Young added, “whatever else was down there has been destroyed.” He pointed his own binoculars farther up. The air was still shimmering, but this time it was from the sheer heat of the explosions and not from any invisible column of energy shooting up into space.

“That’s what we thought too,” MSgt Abernathy said, “the last time we tried attacking it on the ground.”

“She’s right,” Col Newmeyer agreed. “We’re going to need to comb the area to look for anything that might have survived. Give the word, Colonel, and I’ll provide as many people as I can to support you.”

“And there’s also whatever might still be buried somewhere else,” MSgt Abernathy added. “I doubt this is the last we’re going to see of the alien.”

Chapter word count: 1,678 (+11)
Total word count: 47,895 / 50,000 (95.79%)

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Outward: Chapter 26: Line in the Sand

“That has to be another Mackinelly Device!” MSgt Abernathy said, staring at the grainy video stream being projected on the screen in the front of the briefing room.

“Are you sure?” Col Newmeyer asked.

“What else could it be? Same size, same shape. We know that whatever part of the alien survived is hiding out underground.”

“Now hang on just a minute,” COL Griggs interrupted. “I thought that whole dust-up last year was some kind of probe that landed. What’s all this about aliens?”

“We have reason to believe that the Mackinelly Device was either partly biological or contained one or more biological organisms, based on some recent discoveries we’ve made,” MSgt Abernathy replied.

“I hadn’t heard of that,” COL Griggs said.

“Until now, you didn’t have a need to know,” Col Newmeyer pointed out.

“Well what kind of threat is this thing to my base, then?” COL Griggs asked.

MSgt Abernathy looked at Col Newmeyer. “We aren’t entirely sure, sir,” she said.

“How can you not be sure? You’ve tangled with this thing before.”

“The thing is, Colonel,” Col Newmeyer said, “the technology this thing has got is way beyond ours, and we’re only starting to figure out what it’s been up to over the past year. I mean, this silo here, that’s something else. Wow. It’s an impressive piece of work.”

“Also,” added MSgt Abernathy, “it’s still unclear what it’s intentions are.”

“Unclear!” COL Griggs shouted, pounding his fist on the table. “It’s built a goddamn missile silo on my base, and you can’t see what it’s up to?”

“Sir, what I mean is, we have yet to see any real pattern of aggression from it. We don’t know what it’s trying to do here, but there isn’t enough to conclude definitively that it means us any harm.”

“What the Sergeant is trying to say,” added Col Newmeyer, “is that if it were going to attack us, it should’ve done it already. It’s had the opportunity.”

“The hell it hasn’t,” countered COL Griggs. “It’s invaded my base, and I intend to do something about it.”

“Colonel,” Col Newmeyer began, “under the terms of the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, operational control of activities–”

“And as commander of this base,” COL Griggs said, “I have authority over anything that happens here, including dealing with security breaches. I only brought you two here in the first place to figure out what I’m up against, and frankly, I can’t say it was worth the time. If AFEXOCOM knew what it was doing, it would’ve resolved this incursion a year ago, but instead, you’ve let it fester and develop until I find it putting silos right under my nose! You had your chance; now it’s my turn.”

COL Griggs stood up and marched to the phone at the back of the room. He lifted the receiver. “Young, this is Griggs. You are go.” He hung up.

“Now,” he addressed his two guests, “you’re going to see how we deal with alien insurgents, Army-style.”

“Sir?” MSgt Abernathy asked.

“When in doubt, C4.”

“But, sir! You’ll kill it!”

“That’s the idea, Sergeant.”

MSgt Abernathy looked to Col Newmeyer for support.

“Now look, Colonel,” Col Newmeyer said, “I’m not saying we shouldn’t be prepared for that eventuality. Heck, I’ve got air support on warm standby, and my men back at base are looking into what support MOJO can provide, but–”

“MOJO?” COL Griggs sneered. “That didn’t work the first time.”

“We’ve learned a few things since the first time.”

None of the three noticed the shadow that briefly moved across the video stream.

At the site, soldiers were busy wiring together blocks of C4. The plan was to line the walls of the silo with C4 charges, then detonate them all at once, destroying the structure and everything inside. To prevent anyone from having to physically go down into the silo, they were going to borrow the strategy used to lower the cameras down: mounting the charges along cables that would be lowered down along the sides.

All the soldiers near the hole were too busy preparing the charges to be watching the silo itself, so none of them heard the faint metal-on-metal noises coming from somewhere in the depths, or noticed as the sounds became louder as the source became closer.

Something crested the top of the silo. It was small, gray, and flat, with a rectangular body and a jointed leg at each corner. The two front legs grabbed the rim of the hole and flipped the rest of it up onto the surface.

And it was not alone.

The first soldier to notice was connecting a detonator wire to a block of C4 when the vaguely spider-like robot nimbly leaped on top of the block. The soldier jumped up with a shout, drawing the attention of the others. Then they saw dozens of the spiders climbing out of the silo and skittering forth in all directions.

Being unarmed, save for the explosives which were obviously unsuitable for close-quarters combat, the soldiers took the only available option. They fell back, and radioed for help.

Fort Blackstone’s emergency siren blared, interrupting the argument in the briefing room.

“Condition three, old artillery range,” thundered the voice of the PA system, “repeat, condition three, old artillery range. This is not a drill.”

“What does condition three mean?” Col Newmeyer asked.

“It means you can stop wondering if your alien buddy is hostile or not,” COL Griggs replied, heading for the door. “It’s launched its attack.”

CPT Young peered through his binoculars from behind the defensive line, assessing the situation at the silo. It was swarming with the little crawling machines, as well as several larger ones. Many of them were attacking the abandoned C4, severing the detonation wires and — he adjusted the focus and zoom to make sure he was seeing correctly — spraying something that was dissolving the C4 itself into puddles of goo. A few of the other machines were climbing up the support poles for the equipment that had been lowered into the hole and were tearing them down. And at the hole itself, the larger machines were doing something to the rim, widening it.

Not all of the machines were content to destroy the soldiers’ handiwork. Many of them were spreading out in circles from the silo. The riflemen at the front of the defensive line were keeping their sights trained on the slowly advancing machines, waiting for the signal to fire.

“Report!” COL Griggs shouted as he approached, followed by Col Newmeyer, who was talking into his phone, and MSgt Abernathy.

“These… machine things that crawled out of the silo have overrun the silo and surrounding area,” CPT Young replied.


“None yet. The soldiers reported the machines went after the explosives instead of them. But they are marching on our position here.”

“Spiders,” MSgt Abernathy said.

“What?” COL Griggs replied.

“We’ve been calling them ‘spiders’.”

CPT Young checked his binoculars. “But they only have four legs,” he protested.

“I don’t give a crap,” COL Griggs said. “How long until they reach our position?”

“At their present rate, ten, fifteen minutes,” CPT Young replied.

They watched nervously as the front line of spiders crawled forward. After a few minutes, however, they stopped, standing still in an arc around the silo’s position.

“We’re in luck,” Col Newmeyer said. “MOJO-4 passes directly overhead the silo. We’ll be able to use it to straight down inside.”

“And when that doesn’t work?” COL Griggs asked.

“Failing that, the other satellites can concentrate fire at the top of the silo and try to work their way down a bit, but that’ll really tear up the field. We’re also launching bombers as we speak. They should be able to drop something down the silo.”

“We’ll do all of them,” COL Griggs said.

“Isn’t that a bit overkill?”

“There is no overkill,” CPT Young replied. “There is only ‘open fire’ and ‘I need to reload.’”

“Is that the Army training manual?” Col Newmeyer.

“No, sir, but it should be. Schlock Mercenary.”

MSgt Abernathy was ignoring the discussion and watching the spiders. They definitely weren’t advancing any more. They were forming their own defensive line, of a sort, bunching tightly around an invisible circumference centered on the silo, with fewer, larger spiders ambling in the field within. They hadn’t attacked the soldiers themselves, only the explosives they had been preparing.

They weren’t attacking. They were acting in self-defense.

MSgt Abernathy grabbed the radio out of her uniform and slowly stepped forward. If there was another Mackinelly Device down there, and it was controlling the spiders, and it was intelligent, and it was non-hostile, there was a chance the situation could be defused before it escalated further.

“What is it, Sergeant?” Col Newmeyer asked.

“I have an idea, sir,” she replied. She kept moving forward.

“What is it?”

“I’m going to make contact and ask it to stand down. Let it know we don’t mean it any harm.”

“The hell we don’t,” COL Griggs said.

“It’s intelligent,” MSgt Abernathy said calmly and deliberately. “Our response has always been to study it or attack it. We haven’t tried diplomacy.”

“You can’t expect to be able to talk to–” Col Newmeyer began.

“Halt, Sergeant!” COL Griggs barked. “That’s an order.”

Col Newmeyer remembered MSgt Abernathy’s after-action report from the previous incident. It was a long shot, but it wasn’t completely crazy. “Proceed as you see fit, Sergeant,” he said. “That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir,” MSgt Abernathy replied. She continued towards the defensive line.

“What are you–” COL Griggs shouted, furious.

“I am her commanding officer, and I am in command of all operations dealing with alien entities, and I am giving her the go-ahead, Colonel,” Col Newmeyer replied. “You can defend your base, but this call is up to me. There’s only two people who can tell me otherwise, and they’re both in Washington. You will let her through.”

The two colonels stared at each other, waiting for the other to blink first.

“Let the Sergeant through,” COL Griggs relented. “And if those things advance, open fire.”

MSgt Abernathy squeezed through the defensive line and began hear approach to the spiders’ own defensive line. She took one slow step at a time. With her radio, she tapped out numbers using the transmit button. Once. Twice. Thrice. Four times. Five times.


She kept trying as she approached, waiting for some reply to come through, hoping the Mackinelly Device was paying attention to the frequency. If it hadn’t noticed her, the spiders certainly did. The outermost were holding their position, but the ones immediately behind them had reared up on their hind legs. The larger spiders behind the line had also stopped milling about and were moving forward.

MSgt Abernathy held out her arms, keeping her thumb on the radio’s transmit button. She stood only a few feet away from their line. “See?” she said quietly. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Still no response over the radio. Her approach now brought her directly in front of the line. The spiders in front would be easy enough to step over, even if they reared up as well. But that might be seen as aggression. They obviously wouldn’t understand her words. She needed to show we wasn’t going to hurt them.

Slowly, she crouched down in front of the spiders. Even more slowly, she set the still-silent radio down on the grass next to her. With the newly freed hand, she slowly reached forward to touch the closest spider.

They lunged.

Chapter word count: 1,933 (+266)
Total word count: 46,217 / 50,000 (92.434%)

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Outward: Chapter 25: Forgotten

The metal detector squealed. Private First Class Bennett waved the detector back and forth over the spot of ground. It squealed every time. He set the detector down on the grass. Then he pull a bright orange flag out of his shoulder bag and stuck it in the ground. He hefted the metal detector back up and continued his assignment.

PFC Bennett vowed never to sneak out of barracks at night to pick up a couple six packs from the liquor store down the street from Fort Blackstone. The metal detector sounded briefly as he advanced. With his foot, he prodded an aluminum can partially hidden in the grass. He ignored it and moved on.

He retracted his vow and replaced it with a more realistic one: he vowed never to get caught again sneaking back onto base. Flagging the locations of spent ordnance on the Fort’s old artillery range had ceased to be interesting after the first ten minutes or so. Coming back later to clear out all the stuff that time had buried there, that might be able to hold his interest for quite a bit longer. But pacing back and forth over the old, disused field, making sure the metal detector passed over every square inch of land, was not how he had wanted to spend the day.

But pass over every square inch was what he was going to do. His Sergeant had made it known that the next private caught sneaking off base was going to be punished by making sure PFC Bennett hadn’t missed anything. His Sergeant had also made it abundantly clear what would happen to him if that other private found something.

That clinched it. No more late-night beer runs unless Corporal Smith was on guard duty at the side gate. CPL Smith was the kind of guy you could count on to look the other way in exchange for a cold one.

The metal detector screamed. PFC Bennett took a quick step backward to silence it and keep his ears from ringing. Must be something big. He slipped the headset off his ears and moved forward again, sweeping the detector back and forth in front of him. It sounded continuously. He took another couple steps forward. It continued squealing, and didn’t stop until he had advanced another thirty paces.

Something very big. Using the metal detector as his guide, PFC Bennett traced out a thirty pace by thirty pace square of land, around which he got a continuous signal. He planted flags at each corner. He then approached the center of the square, where the detector seemed to squeal even louder, if that was even possible. He tried sticking another flag in the center, but it hit something buried about six inches down. He took another flag out of the shoulder bag and probed several other places within the square, each time encountering resistance at about the same depth.

Whatever was buried under there, it was one giant thing instead of a whole bunch of little things. PFC Bennett had never heard of any kind of ordnance that large, especially none that would be fired on a training range thirty years ago. Some kind of underground bunker, perhaps? But there’d be no good reason to put something like that on the range itself.

In the end, PFC Bennett did the only thing he could think of. He dumped the rest of the flags in the center of the square, then ran to let his Sergeant know what he had found.

Colonel Griggs took in the scene. “Captain, why did nobody inform me there was this secret underground bunker on my base?”

“Because nobody else knew about it either, sir,” Captain Young replied. He juggled an armload of maps and blueprints. “Nothing about it is in any of the plans, and I couldn’t find any mention of it anywhere I looked.”

COL Griggs frowned. He liked to run a tight operation, and finding out there was an entire building he had never known about until today did not fill him with warm fuzzy feelings, regardless of the reason for it.

“I want to know what that thing is, now,” he ordered.

“The men are working on it as we speak, sir,” CPT Young replied.

Before them, a dozen soldiers were finishing removal of the soil that had buried the top of whatever had been hidden underground. It wasn’t like any bunker either of the officers had ever seen. Whereas they would expect to find a concrete exterior, this object seemed to be made out of a dull grayish-green metal, or at least its exterior was covered with it. The top was square, about thirty paces on a side, with no apparent entrance hatch and no indication of just how far down it went.

“Let me know as soon as you find something, Captain,” COL Griggs said, turning to leave to return to the logistics planning meeting he had ditched after hearing the news.

“Yes, sir,” CPT Young replied.

Once the top of the object was fully exposed, the soldiers set to work finding out what was inside of it. A few of them prepared blowtorches while the rest set up safety harnesses in the ground around the object. Even though the top hadn’t caved in from the weight of the soil that had been on it, there was no telling what would happen once they started cutting into it.

The soldiers spend hours assaulting the top of the object with blowtorches, making headway into what turned out to be several inches worth of metal. They cut away and removed successive layers of the metal, creating a widening and deepening dent in the top of the object. As the sun began its descent, some of the other soldiers set up spotlights to illuminate the object. CPT Young had made it clear that work wasn’t going to stop until he had some answers to take back to the base commander.

Finally, sometime well after midnight, the third team of soldiers manning the blowtorches had created a small hole through the six-inch top of the object. After triple-checking the safety harness, one of them took out a flashlight and shined it through the hole. There was nothing but darkness on the other side. Whatever it was, it was hollow, and it was deep.

One of the soldiers went off to wake up CPT Young while the rest set about widening the hole. By the time CPT Young had arrived, anxiously gripping a large mug with most of its coffee gone, the hole had grown to a foot in diameter.

“Report,” CPT Young said, stifling a yawn that had made it past the onslaught of caffeine.

“Sir,” one of the soldiers replied, “we’ve made a hole in the top of the bunker.”

“What’s inside of it?”

“We don’t know yet, sir. It’s too dark to see inside. We’re getting ready to lower a camera to get a better look.”

One of the soldiers was knotting a cable around one of the harness mounts as another finished duct taping a second flashlight to the video camera the other end of the cable was wrapped around. Soon two more cables were tied to the assembly; together, the three cables, secured at different points around the object, would give the soldiers just enough control to prevent the camera from swinging and twisting uncontrollably as they lowered it down. It wasn’t elegant, but a Macguyvered solution was better than even ten minutes’ additional delay satisfying COL Griggs’s orders.

CPT Young glued his eyes to the screen displaying the camera’s live video feed as the soldiers slowly lowered it down through the hole. The image was shaky as the camera lurched downward inch by inch, but the video revealed the interior to be cylindrical, and lined with the same sort of metal as the outside.

“Can you point the camera down?” CPT Young asked. “I want to know how deep this thing is.”

“Easier said than done, sir,” the solider next to him warned before relaying the order to the soldiers feeding the cables down. After some shaking of the camera, the soldiers managed to lower the front of the camera a bit more than the back, revealing that the cylinder went down for some indeterminate distance.

“Well, I guess we’ll find out when it hits bottom,” CPT Young said. He considered asking them to rotate the camera so he could see the rest of the way around the interior, but from the improvised setup the soldiers had come up with, he guess that was probably impossible. “Proceed.”

The camera continued downwards, a few inches at a time. The cylinder wall turned out not to be completely featureless. About every five feet down, there was a ring of highly reflective red or blue material, each about a foot high. When one of the flashlights shined upon it, the light scattered brilliantly in all directions, brightening the video by an order of magnitude.

Thirty feet. Forty. Fifty. Sixty. The cables had looked comically oversized before the camera had begun its descent, but now they were proving to be too short. There was only another couple feet of slack in the shortest of the three, and still no sign of hitting bottom.

“Bring it back up,” CPT Young ordered. “Then point the camera straight down and send it back in. I want to know how deep it goes, and what’s at the bottom.”

The specifics of the design were beyond CPT Young, but his gut was telling him that this was some sort of secret underground missile silo. At least, that was the only explanation he could think of, even though the presence of missile silos was precisely the sort of thing he or the Colonel ought to have been told about before being assigned to Fort Blackstone. And if it was indeed a missile silo, he absolutely needed to be able to tell COL Griggs whether there was anything still in it.

The camera began its descent anew. The wall of the silo ringed the video feed, but the center was still a circle of almost total darkness. As the camera continued downward, faster this time, there was a glint of something in the center of the screen, at the bottom of the silo. The camera ran out of cable before the object could be clearly seen. As the camera swayed slightly back and forth, the light from the flashlights moved slightly across the object’s surface, faintly tracing out the basic contours of whatever the object was, down in the depths.

CPT Young squinted and leaned closer to the screen. The way the light was playing off of it, it didn’t look conic, like a nosecone would. It was more… spherical.

“Bring it back,” CPT Young ordered. “Your four, go find more cable. The rest of you, stand guard. I’m going to go wake the Colonel.”

Chapter word count: 1,825 (+158)
Total word count: 44,284 / 50,000 (88.568%)

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Outward: Chapter 24: Hearing

Joseph Geemler folded his hands in front of him as he sat alone at the table in front of the empty seats of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was careful not to let his posture or expression betray his annoyance at having been dragged across the country to defend his crowning achievement, nor his impatience at the committee’s obviously deliberate choice to make him wait for them. Even though the audience seating area of the hearing room was sparsely populated, the C-SPAN camera was always rolling. Besides, it wasn’t as though he hadn’t had to deal with self-important government officials before. It was one of the occupational hazards of running one of the nation’s premiere defense contractors, after all.

Finally, about ten minutes after the scheduled start time — Geemler knew better than to check the clock to see — he stood up as the committee members filed in and took their seats. The rest of the room sat down, and the hearing finally began.

“I would like to motion,” Sen. Yanau said, “to ask Mr. Geemler if he would care to be sworn in before we get started.”

“As is my personal policy,” Geemler replied, leaning towards the microphone in front of him, “I respectfully decline to testify under oath when addressing the concerns of Congress as long as Congress declines to speak under oath when addressing the concerns of the American people.”

“Very well,” Sen. Jensen, the Chairman of the committee, said. “The purpose of this informal hearing is to give Mr. Geemler the opportunity to address some of the concerns made known to this committee regarding a certain weapon system currently managed by his company, Forney Junip. Mr. Geemler, would you care to offer any introductory remarks?”

“Thank you, Senator,” Geemler replied, “but I believe the public statements I have made so far regarding the Multifrequency Orbital Gigawatt Ordnance, more commonly known as MOJO, system adequately serve as my introductory remarks, and I would prefer not to bore the committee by repeating them here. However, I would of course be pleased to answer any specific questions the committee may have.”

“Mr. Geemler,” said Sen. Iopea, “many of my constituents in the great state of Vermont have voiced their concerns about having a private company essentially lease out the use of a U.S. military weapons system to the Russian and Chinese governments. Many of them are curious why their tax dollars are being used to provide access to cutting-edge weapons technology to what are, shall we say, not our closest allies.”

Talking point fourteen. “Madame Senator, I am afraid that your constituents have fallen victim to some common misunderstandings of the MOJO system. First, while it is true that military contracts were a primary source of funding for the system’s initial development, full ownership of the system remains with Forney Junip, so MOJO is not in fact a U.S. military weapons system. All parties, public or private, foreign or domestic, provide payment for their use of the system, and all ongoing operational costs are supported by those payments. No taxpayer money is going into its operation, save for the payments made by our #1 customer, the U.S. Department of Defense, for their use of the system to support ongoing operations.”

“But Mr. Geemler,” Sen. Yanau interjected, “the very fact that the Russians and Chinese have access to an orbital weapon system is deeply distressing from a proliferation standpoint. In my twelve years in the Senate representing the great state of Washington, I have worked to oppose the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.” Sen. Yanau proceeded to give a five-minute rehearsed summary of his counterproliferation efforts in the Senate, a speech which Geemler recognized as one of the Senator’s stump speeches for his current reelection campaign. “It worries me,” the Senator continued after concluding his speech, “that orbital weapons technology is shaping up to be the next proliferation concern, especially given its swifter adoption than nuclear technology.”

Talking point seven. “Mr. Senator, I share you concerns about nuclear proliferation, and I hope you will agree with me that MOJO is not the cause of but the solution to proliferation concerns. It is my fervent hope that MOJO will serve as a replacement for the nuclear arsenals of nation states. When fully realized, MOJO will be capable of providing destructive force comparable to most nuclear weapons, but limited to a very narrow blast area and with absolutely none of the fallout or radiological effects. The military is already using MOJO to great effect as an alternative to nuclear bunker-busters, and MOJO is also serving civil uses such as mountaintop removal for coal mining operations — which no doubt Sen. Greenfield, from the great state of West Virginia, can attest to. Civil uses for which nuclear detonations are simply off the table. Furthermore, there is zero risk of terrorists or rogue states getting their hands on orbital weapon technology, thanks to the physical protection of the hard vacuum of space. Loose orbital weapon satellites simply don’t exist, unlike the very real risk of loose nukes.”

“Mr. Chairman,” Sen. Yanau said, “at this time I request we move to closed session.”

“I second the motion,” Sen. Nichols added.

Sen. Jensen brought the motion to a vote, and the yeas carried it. Proceedings halted as the audience and camera crew were escorted out of the hearing room. Geemler took the opportunity to avail himself of the pitcher of water. He had an inkling of where Sen. Yanau was heading.

“Mr. Geemler,” Sen. Yanau continued once the hearing resumed, “I am afraid I do not share your lack of concern about proliferation of orbital weapon technology. Your statements just now were limited solely to bad actors physically gaining access to such weapons, which I agree is unlikely at best. However, I have much stronger doubts about their inability to simply use the weapons system that your company has constructed.”

Geemler thought so. He watched as Sen. Yanau began passing a stack of papers down the row of committee seats.

“According to these documents which I was able to obtain from a reliable source,” Sen. Yanau continued, “two weeks ago there were two unexpected firings of the MOJO system by an unknown party. Is that correct?”

“Strictly speaking, Mr. Senator,” Geemler replied, “they were not unplanned, as the requests passed through the same operations planning process that all MOJO taskings do. They could not have entered the system otherwise.”

“But they were unanticipated, yes? I have here a copy of the list of planned firings for the day in question, and the two events do not appear anywhere on that list.”

“That is correct.”

“I would call that unexpected, Mr. Geemler.”

“The incident did identify a minor flaw in our review process for approving MOJO activations. However, allow me to underline a few key points. First, there was no danger posed to anybody by the events, as both times the satellites were not fired in the direction of Earth at all. Second, the events were immediately identified and reported by MOJO watch staff, as part of the continuous monitoring performed on the system to identify exactly this sort of anomaly. Third, the underlying bug in the mission planning workflow has been corrected, ensuring that all requested activations, regardless of target, must go through human review before being sent to firing control. And fourth, the effectiveness of the correction has been verified by the rejection of an attempted third away-from-Earth firing requested two days later.”

“Mr. Geemler,” asked Sen. Greenfield, “am I understanding correctly that it had been possible for someone to fire orbital weapons with no human review.”

“Let me be clear,” Geemler replied. “From day one we instituted human review for all requested firings, based on the target coordinates and beam trajectories, to make sure all activations of MOJO were in compliance with local, national, and international law. We had done this by dividing the space on and around the planet according to the authorities responsible for each. The two events Sen. Yanau pointed out bypassed this review because the targets and bean trajectories were completely outside those territorial volumes.”

“But Mr. Geemler,” Sen. Yanau prodded, “were you able to identify the party who requested those two firings?”

“Since such identification would be made and verified during human review, no, I suppose not.”

“And you haven’t gone back to investigate after the fact?” Sen. Yanau asked incredulously. “Aren’t you even the least bit curious about who wanted to fire your satellites into deep space?”

“Our focus has been on ensuring the complete safety of the system going forward,” Geemler replied. “An investigation to identify the party in question would not have furthered those goals and would have taken resources away from those efforts.”

“Isn’t anyone looking into this?” Sen. Yanau pressed.

“It’s possible that whoever leaked that information to you is attempting one now, if I were forced to speculate. But given the nature of our business, I am sure you understand the need for us to maintain strict confidentiality of our clients’ information.”

“It’s seeming to me,” Sen. Greenfield said, “that legislation may be in order to regulate the activity of orbital weapons systems.”

“If I may, I would like to remind the Senator of Forney Junip’s right to bear arms, covered under the Second Amendment. I doubt the courts would look favorably on an attempt to restrict those rights, especially in the clear absence of any harm yet to occur.”

“A company’s right to bear arms?” Sen. Nichols asked doubtfully.

“The courts have recognized a corporate right to free speech under the First Amendment,” Geemler pointed out. “Attempting to regulate our newest line of business could force Forney Junip to divest itself of it, and under such a regulatory regime there would likely not be any U.S. entities interested in taking it over. As I’m sure each of you is aware, current U.S. treaty obligations preclude it from possessing space-based weapons, which was part of the motivation for my company to retain ownership of it. Having to shut down the system entirely would have a devastating impact on U.S. jobs. Sen. Yanau, I believe the onboard software is developed in your state. Sen. Iopea, the subcontractor creating our solar panels is in yours. Sen. Greenfield, the high-energy capacitors are in West Virginia. I could go on, but I don’t wish to bore the committee by pointing out the roles workers in the other 47 states play in supporting MOJO.”

Geemler had learned the hard way the importance of making sure any expensive or controversial system has at least part of it made in all 435 congressional districts. No self-respecting member of Congress was going to risk causing their own electorate to lose jobs, especially not in an election season.

“In short,” Geemler concluded, “MOJO is safe, secure, effective, and generates thousands of American jobs. I caution the committee not to undertake any legislation that could jeopardize any of those qualities. Especially given the current economy.”

Chapter word count: 1,834 (+167)
Total word count: 42,459 / 50,000 (84.918%)

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Outward: Chapter 23: Isolation

The bandsaw is not in the typical reverse engineer’s set of tools. Accordingly, MSgt Abernathy was not a typical reverse engineer.

It wasn’t as though there were any other alternatives readily available to get any insight into how the alien antenna was constructed. It had the outward appearance of having been molded from a piece of whatever kind of metal alloy it was. There weren’t any seams or joints anywhere along its body. No access panels or fasteners. No apparent way to get inside other than a rotating diamond-tipped saw blade.

At least that would also solve the problem of shaving off some samples to send for metallurgical analysis, MSgt Abernathy thought as she carefully traded the device to the technician in the metal shop in exchange for a pair of safety goggles.

The technician braced the device in the cutting path of the saw blade, preventing it from rolling out of place. He waved MSgt Abernathy to stand back before bringing the saw up to speed and slowly lowering it along its path towards the object. Sparks and a few errant shavings flew as the blade made contact with the antenna, passing through cleanly with little resistance before it reached the bottom of its trajectory and automatically powered down.

MSgt Abernathy lifted the safety goggles onto her forehead as the technician reset and locked the blade. She leaned over the table and watched as he released the smaller of the two pieces from its mounting clamp. As he placed it on the cutting table, MSgt Abernathy got her first look at the antenna’s cross-section.

The metal body was a shell, only about an eighth of an inch thick all around. The interior was filled with a pinkish-gray mass, quivering slightly from being jostled. It seeped a trickle of clear liquid that slowly oozed down onto the table.

“What the hell is that?” the technician asked, stopping in the middle of unclamping the other piece once he caught sight of what was inside. He looked at MSgt Abernathy and saw panic.

“Call the infirmary,” she said in a quiet, deliberate voice. “Tell them we have a probable biohazard situation here. Nobody comes in or out of here until they say otherwise.”

Plastic barriers blocked all three entrances to the metal shop, marking the boundaries of the provisional quarantine zone. Inside were MSgt Abernathy, the technician, another airman who had happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the member of the base’s medical staff who had been sent in to monitor their condition.

“OK,” Dr. Ullman instructed, her voice muffled and distorted through her hazmat suit’s respirator, “now gently drop the plate on top of the sample and slide it under the microscope.” She kept her eyes fixed on MSgt Abernathy’s face instead of her hands.

“There,” MSgt Abernathy replied as she finished preparing the sample taken from the interior of the antenna. She placed it under the objective lens of the digital microscope Dr. Ullman had brought with her into the quarantine area. She flipped the light switch, shining a bright light from underneath the sample, through the lens and into the camera, which displayed the image of the sample on a nearby computer screen.

“Hmmm,” Dr. Ullman said, stealing a quick look at the image. “Watch it and let me know if it or you change. I’m going to check up on the other two.” She slowly made her way to the cutting table, where the other two victims of the quarantine were playing cards while supposedly keeping an eye on the antenna, now mounted so that the exposed surface pointed directly upward.

MSgt Abernathy adjusted the focus settings on the microscope. Biology had never been her strong suit, xenobiology even less so. The idea had always been to bring in a couple experts in the field when the time came. She hadn’t expected her direct involvement to ever extend beyond collecting samples for someone more qualified to look at later. But there wasn’t time for that now.

Instead, she’d have to make do with what she remembered from high school biology. The magnified image on screen wasn’t fundamentally different from the few times she had used microscopes back then. Of course, her high school’s microscopes hadn’t been nearly this sophisticated; the digital image was far sharper and clearer than the beat-up lenses at her disposal then. On the other hand, the samples they looked at were properly stained to show better contrast, whereas this one hadn’t, making the features, such as they were, more difficult to make out.

Difficult, but not impossible, and they broadly resembled the images she had seen in her youth. She could identity the membranes separating the cells from one another. There were darker and lighter spots within each cell, presumably the organelles. If pressed, she would have guessed that the darkest of them were the nuclei, but she couldn’t even remember the names of what the other options were. But then again, she could well be jumping to conclusions. She couldn’t assume the alien biology was anything like that of Earth.

“And how are you doing over here?” Dr. Ullman asked, seeming to suddenly appear behind her.

“Wishing I had minored in bio instead of music,” MSgt Abernathy replied.

“I mean how are you feeling? Any symptoms?” Dr. Ullman turned MSgt Abernathy’s head towards her own and stared into her pupils.

“Same as before.”

“Good. Now give me your arm; I’m going to take another blood sample.”

MSgt Abernathy groaned as she rolled up her sleeve.

“And no vampire jokes,” Dr. Ullman warned, sanitizing a spot on MSgt Abernathy’s arm. “Both of my daughters are big into Twilight.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She looked away from the approaching needle and back towards the microscope’s screen.

“So how does the sample look?”

“It hasn’t moved an inch. I mean, an inch on the screen. Not an inch inch.”

“Hopefully that means it’s dead. Hold still.”

“What do you mean, ‘hopefully’?” MSgt Abernathy asked, turning her head to Dr. Ullman and immediately regretting the decision as the syringe entered her peripheral view.

“If it’s dead, it’s less likely to pose an immediate threat to any of you in here,” Dr. Ullman replied. “Not impossible, mind you. You’re still going to be stuck here for another twenty-three hours at least.”

MSgt Abernathy winced. “It’s kind of a shame, really.”

“You did saw clean through it, you know.”

“Well I didn’t know there was going to be something alive in there!” MSgt Abernathy protested. But then she wondered, had it been alive? The way it filled the space inside the tube, it was more part of the device than it was merely inside of it. Was the alien technology simply part biological? If so, the fatal blow could have been when SrA Roberts had broken it free from the ground, presumably severing it from its power source. Some way to discover definitive proof of alien life.

Was the Mackinelly Device the same way? They had never been able to see inside it. Was it not a probe at all but a spaceship? Had there been something alive inside?

“The soil bacteria underneath it was dead,” she thought aloud. She caught Dr. Ullman’s confused expression and elaborated, “The Mackinelly Device, I mean, not that. It leaked something into the soil that sterilized everything in it. Maybe it was afraid of us contaminating it as much as we are of it contaminating us.”

“I’ll let the bloodwork be the judge of that,” Dr. Ullman replied. “But the three of you seem to be doing fine so far, as far as I can tell. Speaking of bloodwork, I need to go hit up those two too.”

MSgt Abernathy nodded. “I’ll keep looking at this, I guess. Oh, doc, I don’t suppose you have anything like a toothpick in your gear, do you?”

“A toothpick? I don’t think so. Needles, on the other hand…”

“No, never mind, that’s quite all right,” MSgt Abernathy said.

She had wanted to try putting a swab of her own cheek under the microscope to see how it compared to the alien sample, to have a better reference than her own fuzzy memories of what a “normal” cellular sample was supposed to look like. Not that she was likely to be able to accomplish much with it, anyway.

She stared at the sample on the screen, watching the cells, or whatever they actually were, lie there perfectly still. There weer probably hundreds of thousands of scientists who would kill to trade places with her, even despite the constant attention from the doctor. Hundreds of thousands of scientists who had no idea what was here. Who might not ever know, in fact. Official word was that the operation to destroy the Mackinelly Device was completely successful and, a bit surprisingly, the conspiracy theories that sprang up about it all centered on the idea that the Mackinelly Device itself was some kind of hoax. The sample could possibly answer all kinds of questions about the fundamental properties of life, now that a sample of non-terrestrial life finally existed, and it would probably wind up hidden in a warehouse an aisle down from the Ark of the Covenant.

On the other hand, the sample had been recovered over a hundred miles away from the sites where the Mackinelly Device was known to have been. Assuming there wasn’t a second Device out there that everyone had somehow missed, there were probably still more of the cybernetic antenna devices around, waiting to be unwittingly discovered by someone. And there was something underground connected to it, that much was almost certain. Something that had survived the Mackinelly Device’s destruction, and quite possibly remembered it.

If it was still out there, and intelligent, and alive, MSgt Abernathy wondered what its disposition towards them was. They had acted more aggressively towards it than the other way around. If it was part machine, part organism, had breaking off the antenna device injured it? Hurt it? And, more to the point, how was it going to respond?

Chapter word count: 1,685 (+18)
Total word count: 40.625 / 50,000 (81.25%)

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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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Outward: Chapter 21: Extraction

SrA Roberts drummed his fingers impatiently on one of the metal boxes mounted to the wall in the back of the van. “What time is it now?” he asked.

Ludovich rolled his eyes. “Five minutes after the last time you asked.”

SrA Roberts groaned. “Ever consider joining the military?” he asked.

“Can’t say I have.”

“Well, don’t. You think it’s going to be all exciting action-movie stuff. And sometimes it is exciting, don’t get me wrong. But most of the time, you’re stuck waiting for something to happen.”

“I’ll try to keep that in mind,” Ludovich replied disinterestedly. “Oh, hang on, that might be them.” He pulled a vibrating phone out of his pocket and answered it. “Ludovich. Yes. Yes. Understood.” He put it back and turned to SrA Roberts. “You’re good to go.”

“About time,” SrA Roberts said. He took the headphones resting around his neck and put them on his ears. He then flipped a bunch of switches on the equipment rack in front of him. He liked the Fourth Amendment as much as the next guy, but it was still annoying to have to wait for the judge to sign the court order before he could continue his mission.

The surveillance equipment silently sprang to life as it started sniffing the wireless network in the two-story home. Lights flashed as the Wi-Fi antenna mounted atop the van picked up the packets traversing the network. Packet metadata started streaming across the computer screen.

“Let’s see if our buddy is talking,” SrA Roberts mumbled quietly to himself as he checked the addresses sending packets. There was the wireless router itself, of course. There were two other addresses showing up. From the first few octets of its address, SrA Roberts guessed it was someone visiting the unsuspecting old woman who brought his or her laptop along. The other one was the mystery device he had identified the day before. So far, so good.

SrA Roberts flipped some more switches, bringing the direction-finding equipment online. Figuring out where the mystery device was transmitting from was going to be a little tricky, since most of the Wi-Fi devices in the neighborhood were sharing the same limited set of frequencies, each one turning their transmitters on and off as they decided to talk and worked to avoid talking over each other. Picking out a particular transmitter was going to be tricky, but hey, that’s what the hundred pounds of equipment he was sharing the back of the van with was for.

Ludovich watched as SrA Roberts worked, hunched over the keyboard and monitor awkwardly mounted to the rest of the equipment in the back. The whole thing was pretty well outside his domain of expertise, so he was stuck sitting in the driver’s seat.

“Drive down a few houses, then park again,” SrA Roberts said. Ludovich shifted the van into gear and moved forward slowly, finding another spot along the street to parallel park.

A few minutes later SrA Roberts made the same request. Then to go back the other way. Then to turn down a side street for a bit. Then a different side street. Ludovich dutifully complied each time, assuming the rigmarole was somehow necessary, and hoping there wasn’t some kind of neighborhood watch program in effect. Sure, SrA Roberts would probably be able to convince the cops they weren’t up to no good, but there was the chance they’d want to see a hard copy of that court order they had been waiting on, and Ludovich really didn’t want to have to come back here again tomorrow to finish their mission.

“Drive down to the cul-de-sac and park,” SrA Roberts instructed. He took off his headset and climbed up into the passenger seat.

“Any luck?” Ludovich asked.

“See that little clearing in the middle of the road up there?” SrA Roberts pointed to the center of the cul-de-sac. “There’s a suspicious transmitter somewhere in there that I want to check out.”

“How do you know it’s suspicious?”

“Do you see anyone out there?”

SrA Roberts knew that any legitimate Wi-Fi transmitters in a residential area would be indoors, or be being carried by someone. They wouldn’t just be sitting outside in the grass, unattended. And that’s exactly where the results of his triangulation suggested one was. He climbed out of the van, and Ludovich followed him.

“What are we looking for, exactly?” Ludovich asked.

“Some kind of antenna,” SrA Roberts said. “I don’t know anything more than that. Should be pretty obvious once we start looking.”

The center of the cul-de-sac didn’t provide many hiding places for an antenna, so it only took a few minutes before SrA Roberts found something unusual hidden underneath a bush. He pushed the branches aside.

“Well I’ll be,” Ludovich said.

It was small, occupying the gap between the grass line and the lowest branches of the bush. It was thin and oblong, with a curved part near the back, away from the house they had searched the day before. A thin pole mottled gray and green secured it to the ground. SrA Roberts tested it with his boot. Thin, but sturdy.

“Here, hold this,” SrA Roberts said, passing off the branch-holding duties to Ludovich. SrA Roberts took pictures of it from every angle with his phone, then forwarded them to MSgt Abernathy.

“Done?” Ludovich asked. “Mission complete, right?”

SrA Roberts shrugged. “We’ll see. Let’s get back to the van for now. There’s something else I want to try. Pull back down the street a bit so we get back in range of the house.”

“OK,” Ludovich said, turning the ignition key. “I don’t understand, though. Most people have wireless networks these days, right? Why isn’t it pointed at one of the homes here, instead of one down the street?”

“Probably because the one it’s pointed at is the only one right around here that’s completely unsecured. Path of least resistance. OK, here’s good. Let’s wait here for a bit.” SrA Roberts returned to the equipment in the back of the van.

Whatever it was, it was still connected to the old woman’s Wi-Fi network. The provisions of the court order stated that two could play at that game. He pointed the van’s antenna at the house and established his own connection to the unsecured wireless router. He sniffed the traffic long enough to figure out what IP address the mystery device was using, then launched a port scan against it while he was waiting.

The results came back completely negative. All 131,070 ports showed up as filtered. Yet since the sniffer was showing traffic coming from and going to the mystery cul-de-sac antenna, so it was definitely still up and running.

Next he tried forwarding the sniffed traffic to a protocol analyzer. It wasn’t able to figure out what operating system the device behind the antenna was using. It was either a very nonstandard networking stack, or it was being run by someone far more concerned about security than the old woman in the house. In any case, there’d be plenty of time to dive deep into couple hours’ worth of traffic the equipment collected going to and from it, as his own phone rang.

“Hungry?” he asked Ludovich after hanging up the phone again.

“Getting there,” Ludovich replied. “Are we finally done?”

“Not quite, but we’ve got a break. By the way, do you happen to know about when the hardware stores around here close?”

They returned to the cul-de-sac under cover of darkness. SrA Roberts carried a shovel with him as he headed towards the antenna. Ludovich followed behind, carrying the rest of the gear they had purchased.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Ludovich asked. He couldn’t shake the idea that what they were up to was pretty much his operating definition of “suspicious activity”.

“Orders are orders,” SrA Roberts said as he scooped the first shovelful of dirt away from the antenna’s support pole. “Alien defense means never having to worry about landscaping.”

While they had been out to dinner, shopping, and napping back at the hotel, MSgt Abernathy had been running a few checks on the neighborhood. She had verified there definitely shouldn’t have been any communications equipment installed in the cul-de-sac itself, at least as far as the utility companies and the homeowner’s association knew. She also hadn’t been able to find any known antenna designs, commercially available or otherwise, that quite matched the photographs that SrA Roberts had sent.

They may have been grasping at straws, but it was starting to look like a straw worth grasping.

“There’s no telling how far down this thing goes,” SrA Roberts said after revealing the support pole continued several feet down into the ground. He was trying to be as neat as reasonably possible, but the increasingly large hole in the cul-de-sac was probably going to attract some complaints in the morning. Not his problem, though.

SrA Roberts set the shovel down and gave the support pole a good tug. It was completely immobile. Whatever it was attached to, it was awfully solidly planted in the ground. On to Plan B, then. SrA Roberts started widening one side of the hole.

“How much longer is this going to take?” Ludovich asked, watching SrA Roberts work.

“Not much longer now,” SrA Roberts replied. “Sledgehammer time.”

Ludovich nervously traded the sledgehammer for SrA Roberts’s shovel. SrA Roberts donned a pair of heavy rubber gloves and grasped the wooden handle with both hands.

“You’re probably going to want to stand back a ways,” he cautioned Ludovich, “in case something happens.”

“Like what?” Ludovich asked, taking a few steps backwards.

“Life is full of surprises. Here goes nothing.”

SrA Roberts sidled up to the edge of the hole and planted his feet, making sure he had solid footing. He held the sledgehammer like a golf club, bringing its head down next to the support pole, then slowly arcing it back and forth to trace out a planned trajectory. He then held the sledgehammer at the top of the swing.


He brought the sledgehammer down on the support pole with as much force as he could muster. The pole broke cleanly at the point of impact. The newly liberated antenna toppled backwards, landing in the hole. He was relieved to see there was no sparking or sudden explosions or swarms of robot spiders.

“Huh.” He carefully picked up the antenna assembly by its newfound handle. “That was easy.” He set it down in the grass and waved for Ludovich to bring him the shovel again. He then got to work filling in the hole with the pile of dirt he had built up next to it.

“Now what?” Ludovich asked, carrying the shovel and sledgehammer back to the van while SrA Roberts followed with the antenna-on-a-stick.

“Now,” SrA Roberts replied, “we make a beeline for base so we can figure out what this thing is made out of.”

Chapter word count: 1,827 (+160)
Total word count: 37,013 / 50,000 (74.026%)

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Outward: Chapter 20: Follow the Money

Raskin stared up at the ceiling as he lay on the hotel bed. The brief glimmer of hope of finding something useful was fading quickly, as the trail that had brought him to Wall Street had once again grown cold.

The line of thinking had been tenuous at best, he had to admit, but no more promising leads had presented themselves. They were, after all, jumping to the conclusion that the two unexplained MOJO firings were directly related to whatever was left of the Mackinelly Device hiding out somewhere on Earth. None of them had been able to come up with any other explanations for why someone might want to fire a high-energy beam at two nearby stars. MOJO didn’t come cheap.

Which is where Raskin had found himself roped into things. It was at least more interesting than keeping a desk chair warm in Washington, where he’d be twiddling his thumbs waiting for money to arrive in between budgetary meetings to decide what to do with it once it finally showed up. At this point in time, he could handle that just as well from anywhere, as long as he could find a couple hours every day or so to dial in to a conference call.

Raskin sighed. It always came down to money, in the end.

It’s what brought him to this hotel room, certainly. Finding out about the MOJO incidents had opened up two leads. The obvious one was to track down the location where the requests had been made. The jury was still out on how fruitful that would be. Raskin was no expert in networking, but he knew there were all kinds of ways to give digital forensic investigators headaches.

The other lead was all his. MOJO didn’t come cheap, and the money had to have come from somewhere. Find whose pocketbook it came out of, find the person responsible, and then maybe you could figure out what was going on.

Apparently in the aftermath of the incident with the Mackinelly Device, AFEXOCOM had gotten some expanded authorities when it came to suspected alien activity on Earth. At least, that’s how Raskin assumed Col Newmeyer was able to get his hands on some of Forney Junip’s financial records. Once MSgt Abernathy was able to decode enough of the MOJO logs to figure out how long and at what energy level the satellites had been fired, it was a simple matter of multiplying by the fee schedule to calculate the dollar amount that had been transferred to Forney Junip’s accounts each time. The amounts were unique enough to stick out readily in the transaction history.

The money had been laundered through an intermediate bank account, based on its transaction history, since the money had entered and left the account in a matter of days. Not laundered effectively enough to hide the fact that it had come from an investment account associated with Jupiter Dynamic Financial Trading LLC.

Which is where Raskin had found himself stuck. He reached over to the end table and picked up a glossy marketing brochure he had taken from Jupiter’s offices before their security guards had escorted him out. He flipped through it for what felt like the hundredth time, hoping to find some nugget of useful information buried within the marketing drivel.

Jupiter was one of the many high-frequency trading firms that had sprung up like weeds over the past decade and that now dominated the proverbial trading floor. Raskin had gone to see the New York Stock Exchange’s trading floor that morning before his attempted meeting with Jupiter. He wasn’t surprised that the trading floor these days was mostly there just for show. It seemed like an awfully inefficient way to trade stocks.

Jupiter’s basic approach, like the other high-frequency trading firms, was the exact opposite: lots and lots of servers automatically buying and selling stocks according to proprietary algorithms kept behind more closed doors than nuclear launch codes and Coca-Cola’s recipe combined. The machines could select and execute millions of trades in the time it took a sweaty guy in the pit to flash a single hand signal to a fellow trader.

The firm’s claim to fame was its market prediction algorithms. The marketing brochure claimed they were able to predict changes in the price of a stock over the next ten seconds with 99% accuracy. Reading between the lines, Raskin guessed that Jupiter predicted when a stock was about to go up in price a fraction of a cent and bought it first, then re-selling it to the would-be buyer a second later, pocketing the difference. An individual trade would be worth next to nothing, but executed billions of times a minute, it wasn’t surprising that the quant who invented the algorithm at the core of their business now had a nine-figure income at the age of twenty. The algorithm’s introduction six months ago had propelled Jupiter to the lead position in the world of high-frequency trading.

The sources of data Jupiter used to predict the market were the stuff of rumor amongst day traders on the Internet. It was pretty widely assumed Jupiter paid huge sums of money to get real-time market feeds from all of the world’s exchanges. From there, the veracity of things got a lot more dubious. Some people said Jupiter paid (or possibly bribed, depending on who was telling the story) exchanges to let it see the trades queued by other market participants and allow Jupiter to slip its own trades in front of them. Another popular and oft-debated rumor was that Jupiter had given Twitter lots of free bandwidth and rack space in its server room, just so it could see what people were saying about the market before any of its users could.

The more he had learned about the world of high-frequency trading, the more Raskin seriously considered abandoning the stock market entirely and sticking all his investments in Treasury bonds. If Jupiter’s algorithms ever thought a market crash were imminent, it would no doubt liquidate all its holdings in the blink of an eye, precipitating precisely the market panic it had predicted as other investors saw the sudden drop in share prices across the board and dumped their investments as well.

But more to the point at hand, high-frequency trading looked like a money launderer’s dream come true. Col Newmeyer had traced back the payments to Forney Junip for MOJO back this far because the money was transferred between accounts in discrete, easily understandable amounts. But here, there would be no conceivable way to follow the money trail back any further, since it would be split up into billions of trades over millions of stocks. He could easily imagine someone setting up hundreds or even thousands of investment accounts with Jupiter, passing money back and forth between them in a nigh-untraceable manner millions of times a day.

Even if Jupiter kept transaction logs for all the trades its algorithms were making, and even if Jupiter were willing to disclose them to anybody, it would still take years of dedicated analysis to try to figure out what was going on. Jupiter was a dead end.

The information Col Newmeyer had been able to dig up about the account itself was of no use. The name and mailing address were readily seen to be bogus. The phone number was the first ten digits of pi, and the domain name in the e-mail address was a string of fifty gibberish letters and ended in .aq, the top-level domain for Antarctica. Evidently, all that Jupiter worried about when someone created an account with them was that they had money.

Raskin concluded he was wasting his time out there. Unless the people in charge of Jupiter had a sudden change of heart when it came to protecting privacy — and the fact that no personal contact information for any of its leadership or the miracle quant who coded their magic algorithm could be found on the Internet suggested that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon — there was nothing else he could do there. He might as well return to Washington and try to push the early-warning system plans forward as much as possible.

He tossed the marketing brochure to the floor and picked up his phone off the table. He dialed.

“Air Force Exosolar Command, Master Sergeant Abernathy speaking,” answered the voice on the other end.

“Sergeant, it’s me,” Raskin replied.

“Good afternoon, sir. Did you have any luck?”

“Does bad luck count?”

“I suppose it was a bit of a long shot,” MSgt Abernathy admitted.

“There’s no way I’m going to be able to get any information out of Jupiter, actionable or otherwise,” Raskin said. “But then, I’m just an independent consultant for you. You guys are the ones with all the authority.”

“They didn’t knuckle under after we threatened them with the National Security Act as amended bit. The Colonel and I are debating whether it’s worth it to try to compel them to comply, but we’re not sure there’s a strong enough case that the matter falls under our jurisdiction.”

“And Jupiter no doubt could hire every lawyer in New York to defend them.”

“Exactly. Besides, the Colonel doesn’t want the sudden publicity that kind of action would bring to us.”

“In any event,” Raskin said, “I’m planning on taking the first flight out of here tomorrow morning back to Washington. If anything comes up down there that might be any help to you, I’ll let you know, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

“No, sir, I won’t.”

“Anything else new?”

“Well,” MSgt Abernathy began, presumably to choose her words carefully. “We’ve learned through the grapevine that our mystery person had placed another request. Third target, same pattern as before. I can give you the details later, though. They denied it this time, though.”

“Any reason?”

“Not sure. My guess is that their people are worried something’s up and are trying to play it safe.”

“Easier to accidentally take the money than knowingly take it.”

“Something like that. Also, I’m still working on figuring out the rest of the logs. I’ve got some suspicions, but I want to double-check a few things before I say anything.”

“Well, don’t wait too long to speak up,” Raskin advised. “Remember how quickly things nearly got out of control last time.”

“Very well, sir.”

Chapter word count: 1,730 (+63)
Total word count: 35,186 / 50,000 (70.372%)

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Outward: Chapter 19: Inspection

“This is ridiculous,” Max Ludovich said, staring nervously at the two-story suburban home the van was parked in front of.

“Man, don’t get me started on ridiculous,” SrA Roberts said. He kept his gaze fixed on the mirror on the back of the visor as he made a third attempt to tie a Windsor knot. “I could write a book on the subject. They’d never let me publish it, but it’d be there.”

“When I applied for a job with the EPA, this is not the sort of thing I had in mind.”

“Welcome to my world.” SrA Roberts sighed and unraveled the misshapen knot.

“Hang on,” Ludovich said. He leaned over and grabbed the loose ends of SrA Roberts’s necktie and slowly began tying it properly, trying to mentally reverse the muscle memory he had developed from tying his own necktie countless times. “Try to hold still and we can get this over with.”

“I hereby promise never to complain about my ABUs again,” SrA Roberts said. “I don’t know how people manage to wear this get-up every day.”

“Ha. We field naturalists normally don’t. Only when we get roped into meeting with people. It’s supposed to make us look more official and trustworthy. Flannel and jeans don’t quite cut it for that.” He let go and considered his handiwork. “Eh, good enough for government work.”

“There’s the attitude,” SrA Roberts intoned sarcastically. “Let’s just stick to the plan and we can get this over with.”

“You are sure this is the place, right?” Ludovich asked as they walked single-file up the driveway.

“That’s what the cable company said, at least,” SrA Roberts replied, lugging a hastily-packed briefcase in one hand. “I’ll check once we get inside.”

Ludovich’s finger froze an inch away from the doorbell. “Remind me again how long I’m going to have to keep things up?”

“As long as it takes. I’ll give you the signal when I’m done.”

Ludovich sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of.” He rang the doorbell.

About a minute later, the front door opened, revealing an elderly woman with graying hair. “Yes?” she asked sweetly.

“Good evening, ma’am,” Ludovich said, “I am Maxwell Ludovich, Environmental Protection Agency, and this is my associate, Mr. Barton Roberts.”

“Ma’am,” SrA Roberts said. His free hand instinctively started to reach for his cap before he reminded himself that he wasn’t wearing it.

“May we come in?” Ludovich asked.

“Oh, yes, of course,” the woman replied with a mixture of politeness and confusion.

“You’re probably wondering what brings us here today,” Ludovich continued once the two of them had stepped inside. “We recently received a report that your home may be, um, home to a species of spider known as Argiope sidereus, more commonly known as the North American square-bodied recluse. They are an extraordinarily rare species, a prime spot on the endangered species list. And under the terms of the Endangered Species Act, we’re here to check for signs of A. sidereus activity.”

“Oh dear,” the woman replied.

“Don’t worry, ma’am, I assure you they’re quite harmless,” Ludovich added quickly. “They’re far more afraid of you than you are of them. In fact, my colleague here once had an encounter with A. sidereus not too long ago, and as he can assure you, he came away completely unharmed.”

SrA Roberts smiled limply and began tuning Ludovich’s prattling out. He casually looked around the room to assess the situation. The living room they were standing in absolutely screamed “grandmother.” Doilies were everywhere, and though the room was generally clean, there was a small pile of children’s toys shoved over in the corner. Nothing out of the ordinary.

SrA Roberts hoped this wasn’t going to turn out to be a waste of time. He hadn’t endured a two-hour drive with a guy he hadn’t met before and knew next to nothing about, except for his inordinate fascination with beetles, which had become all too painfully clear about ten miles in.

“Anyway, A. sidereus is known to prefer heights when choosing a nesting place, so we’d best start with the upstairs and work our way down to the basement,” Ludovich was saying. “Don’t you agree, Mr. Roberts?”

“Oh, yes, definitely,” SrA Roberts replied half-heartedly, shifting the briefcase from one hand to the other.

The kindly old woman led them up the stairs, past framed pictures of what were presumably her three grandsons. As he stepped up into the second floor hallway, SrA Roberts spotted a computer monitor through one of the doors. He cleared his throat and nodded his head in that direction. The signal.

Ludovich picked up on it. “Why don’t we start with that room there?” he asked the woman, pointing to the room immediately to the right of the one SrA Roberts had identified.

The woman led them on a tour through each of the rooms. SrA Roberts again tuned most of the conversation out, giving each one a cursory once-over to look for anything anomalous and, unsurprisingly, finding nothing. There was the bathroom with neatly folded decorative towels. The master bedroom with more portraits of grandchildren and, presumably, the grandchildren’s parents. The guest bedroom turned playroom, looking much like a toy store had exploded. A linen closet. And finally, SrA Roberts’s target of interest, the study.

The monitor was hooked up to a quietly humming tower sitting below the desk. One of the cables running out the back led to a pair of boxes on the bottom shelf of a bookcase, each with rapidly blinking lights. Home router and cable modem. Bingo.

“Ma’am,” SrA Roberts said as they were about to be led back down to the first floor to continue their spider inspection, “if you don’t mind, I’d like to stay up here for a bit and make sure there isn’t any, uh, webbing, hidden behind any of the furniture.”

“A. sidereus has a very distinctive webbing pattern,” Ludovich added, covering for SrA Roberts. “Meanwhile, the two of us can head down and check out the rest of the home, if that’s all right with you.”

“Oh, certainly, dear,” the woman agreed, leading Ludovich back out of the room.

SrA Roberts watched them as they descended the stairs and, once their heads and dropped below the floor, turned his attention to the computer and got to work. He nudged the mouse and the monitor sprang to life, revealing the Windows desktop. No password on the screen saver, SrA Roberts noticed. This was going to be easy.

He opened up a command prompt and typed the command to display the networking settings. Sure enough, it was a private address, no doubt issued from the wireless router on the other side of the room. Noting the gateway IP address, he opened up a web browser and typed in the address, bringing up the router’s login screen.

He tried admin/password. Login failure. He tried admin/admin. Login failure. He tried admin with an empty password. He was in.

The router’s administrative interface was poorly laid out, as was typical, but SrA Roberts only needed a few moments’ searching to find the network interface settings. Sure enough, the external IP address was the same one as the one MSgt Abernathy had found in the MOJO logs. SrA Roberts double-checked by looking at the DHCP status page. The IP address hadn’t been reassigned in over a month.

He turned to look at the router. The commands to fire MOJO at two nearby stars had almost certainly passed through it. SrA Roberts was pretty sure the kindly old woman wasn’t working on behalf of some alien invader, nor were her grandchildren. But something in the house evidently was.

The lack of screaming coming from downstairs suggested they hadn’t come across a surprise swarm of alien robot spiders, which was a good sign as far as that went, even though it meant they’d have to keep looking.

SrA Roberts noticed again the frantically blinking lights on the router and the cable modem. Something was shoving bits through the pipe like there was no tomorrow. He turned back to the computer and looked for anything that might indicate why. There was an icon in the notification area down by the clock that he didn’t recognize. He clicked it, and a large window appeared, covering everything else on the screen.

Not all of the old woman’s grandkids were of the age where they still played with colorful plastic toys, judging from the listing of active torrents being downloaded. SrA Roberts counted five recent movies, four complete seasons of TV shows, and a couple items he was unfamiliar with but, based on the titles, were the sort of thing military members weren’t allowed to let their fellow service members know they were into. He clicked the pause button on the window and looked back at the networking equipment. The blinking lights calmed down noticeably but still indicated ongoing network activity.

SrA Roberts switched back to the router’s configuration page and poked around some more until finding the list of all devices connected to the internal interfaces. He counted two, one of which was clearly the computer he was sitting in front of. The other one, however, was a wireless connection. He tore a piece of paper from a nearby notepad and scribbled down the MAC address listed, and folded it into his pocket.

He decided he had spent enough time up here. He didn’t want Ludovich stalling for time for too much longer. SrA Roberts returned everything on the computer to the state it was in when he found it, then headed down to the basement.

“All clear up there,” SrA Roberts announced while still halfway down the stairs. “Did you find anything down here?”

“I’m afraid not,” Ludovich replied, his face briefly betraying his relief that SrA Roberts had finally made an appearance. “Ma’am,” he continued, “it looks like that anonymous tip we received was erroneous. There appears to be no sign of A. sidereus in your home.”

“Well that’s a relief,” the old woman said. “I was afraid you’d be upset with me for sweeping up the cobwebs!”

“No, not at all,” Ludovich assured her. “Well, we’ve taken up enough of your afternoon. Thank you very much for your assistance, ma’am, and have a wonderful day.”

When they had returned to the van, SrA Roberts turned to Ludovich and asked, “Did you happen to notice any computers or laptops or anything like that other than the one in the study?”

Ludovich shook his head. He had been specifically asked to keep an eye out for them back during the mission briefing. “No, just the one you found.”

SrA Roberts frowned. “I think our culprit is stealing that poor woman’s Wi-Fi.”

“So what happens now?”

“We go war-driving.”

Chapter word count: 1,795 (+128)
Total word count: 33,456 / 50,000 (66.912%)

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Outward: Chapter 18: Spy Stuff

The unmarked black car pulled up to the curb in front of the shopping mall. The rear door swung open. Nate Johnson hazarded a quick glance around him before climbing inside and slamming the car door shut behind him. The car pulled away.

A man wearing a black suit and sunglasses was sitting in the back seat as well. “What was all that about?” he asked Nate.

“What was what about?”

“The little head thing you did before getting in.”

“Oh,” Nate replied. “I was making sure I wasn’t being followed.”

“By whom?” the man asked incredulously.

“I don’t know,” Nate shrugged. “People.”

“Well here’s a tip,” the man replied. “If you think you might be being followed for some reason, try not to get into a car as suspiciously as possible. All you’re going to do is attract attention.”

“Hang on, who are you anyway?”

The woman sitting in the passenger seat turned around to face them in the back. “Can you two please stop screwing around back there,” MSgt Abernathy pleaded, “so we can get on with this?”

Nate had been watching TV in his apartment a few nights earlier when there had been a knock on the door. Through the peephole, he saw the distorted image of a woman in a military uniform. He cracked the door open.

“Yes?” he asked warily.

“Master Sergeant Susan Abernathy, United States Air Force,” the woman introduced myself. “This is a good time?” she half-asked, half-stated.


“Good,” she said, pushing the door the rest of the way open and stepped inside. “This will only take a minute.” She took a seat at his dining room table and gestured for him to take a seat, which he did.

“What is all this about, exactly?” Nate asked.

MSgt Abernathy handed him a few computer printouts from the folder she had set down on the table in front of her. “Does this look familiar?” she asked.

He looked at the papers. It was a printout of an astronomy web forum he had found last night after work. Specifically, it was a printout of a thread he started once he had created an account.

“Wait a minute,” Nate said defensively, “why is the Air Force spying on what I do online? I have rights, you know!”

“Relax,” MSgt Abernathy said, motioning for him to sit back down, “we weren’t watching you, we were watching him.”

Nate looked again at the forum thread. There had been one reply to his message.

“He’s a bit of a person of interest,” she continued.

“Look,” Nate replied, “I never met the guy, all right? I don’t even know his real name! If he’s some kind of terrorist or something–”

“No, no,” MSgt Abernathy sighed, rubbing her temples with one hand and wishing she had started the conversation more carefully, “it’s not like that. Long story short, we had hired him to do some consulting work for us, and he took the money and ran. But I’m here not because of him, but of what you had asked there.”

Nate looked again at his question. It looked pretty innocent to him.

“It’s an awfully specific question for a newcomer to an astronomy discussion site to be asking, isn’t it?” she said. “Asking about what can be seen in two awfully precise locations in the sky. Locations that just so happen to align with the celestial coordinates of Wolf 359 and Ross 128.”

“So?” Nate stammered. “I, um, was looking at the sky one night and wondering what those stars were.”

“I doubt that. Neither of those stars are visible without a telescope. And I definitely doubt you were pointing a telescope around randomly and just happened to see them, especially with the kind of light pollution around here.”

Nate fell silent.

“What I do believe, however,” MSgt Abernathy continued, “are the rumors about a little excitement with MOJO recently. Something about a couple unexpected firings into deep space right? Or, in this case, not so deep space.”

“Um,” Nate said, averting his eyes.

“Yes, I thought so. MOJO was originally built on a government contract, you know. People know each other. People talk. But they don’t normally talk with quite this many significant digits, which tells me you have closer access to what’s going on than the grapevine does.”

“Oh no,” Nate said, his face going pale, “you want me to disappear, don’t you.”

“What? No!” MSgt Abernathy exclaimed. “Do you have any idea how much paperwork…. Never mind that. I mean really, would I be telling you any of this if that were my plan.”

“I suppose not,” Nate replied after thinking it over a bit.

“I think we’re actually in the same boat here,” she continued. “We both want to know what’s going on, and since you seem to have some inside connections, I was hoping you could help me out a bit.”

Nate’s eyes widened.

Nate held out a USB thumb drive in his hand.

“This is it?” the man sitting with him in the back seat asked, taking hold of it. “This is everything?”

“Well, everything I have access to, at least,” Nate replied. “The complete set of MOJO firing system logs are on there. I didn’t want to raise suspicions too much if I started asking around a little too forcefully for other stuff, you know.”

“Hopefully it will be enough,” the man said, dropping the thumb drive into a pocket inside his suit coat.

“Um,” Nate said.


“I was kind of expecting you to copy the files off of there and give it back.”

Behind his sunglasses, the man was probably rolling his eyes. “I’m not very well going to stick it into my computer right here without virus scanning it first.”

“I only have the one,” Nate mumbled quietly.

The man sighed and leaned to one side. He pulled out his wallet and fished out a $20 bill, handing it to Nate. “Here, this should cover the cost of getting a new one. Oh, hey, look, a mall. Maybe they have a Best Buy in there.”

During the brief time Nate was in the car, the driver had circled it halfway around the mall and was now approaching an entrance on the opposite side of the building.”

“You’re just going to dropped me off here?” Nate asked.

The man stared at him. “What were you expecting? Your car’s parked somewhere around here, right? We can’t very well go dropping you off somewhere else, can we?”

“I guess not,” Nate admitted. “So, this is it, is it?”

“Pretty much.”

“Can I ask you one question? How did you track me down in the first place anyway?”

“The web forum logs IP addresses,” replied MSgt Abernathy from the seat in front of him. “It’s not that hard to go from that to the service subscriber.”

“Oh,” Nate said.

“We’ll be in touch if we need anything else from you,” the man said as the car came to a stop at the entrance.

“But don’t get your hopes up,” MSgt Abernathy added.

Nate weakly waved goodbye before climbing back out of the car. He had only taken a couple steps towards the mall entrance before the car pulled away again.

“Tell me again why we went through this ridiculous setup?” Raskin asked as he pulled the thumb drive back out and looked at it.

“It was kind of his idea, actually,” MSgt Abernathy replied. “He got so excited when he thought he was going to be some secret government informant. It’s not like we’re going to be able to share anything we find out from him. I figured the least we could was let him have his little fantasy experience.”

“Let’s just get back to the base,” Raskin said.

MSgt Abernathy opened up the lone text file on the thumb drive. The window on the screened filled with densely packed numbers, letters, and symbols. She paged down a few screens to see much of the same. Then she saw the position of the scroll bar to the right.

“This is going to take a while to work through,” she said.

Raskin stared over her shoulder at the screen. “That’s a lot of data.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is there anything useful we can get out of it quickly?” he asked.

“I’m not sure yet. Give me a minute to see if I can figure out the format. Because of course he didn’t think to give us the file format that this is in.”

Raskin paced back and forth as he waited, thinking. Wolf 359 and Ross 128. Both of them were nearby stars, as far as the distance between stars goes. Maybe Ganett was right on the money when he talked about aliens needing to take a star-hopping approach to reach Earth. Or maybe the home planet of whatever sent the Mackinelly Device orbited one of them. Even more of a reason to figure out what was there, if that were true. He’d have to meet with Riggs when he got back to Washington. With this information, they could probably plead some more money out of Congress and accelerate the R&D some more.

“It looks like there’s more here than just firing information,” MSgt Abernathy said slowly, her eyes darting across the screen. “Maybe more here than Mr. Johnson realized. This bit here,” she said, highlighting a bit of text with the mouse, “looks like a record of where each request originated. See, there’s a phone number for this one. That’s a northern Virginia area code, right?”

Raskin looked at where MSgt Abernathy was pointing and nodded. “Probably someone at the Pentagon.”

“But over here,” MSgt Abernathy continued, “looks like an IP address, so maybe there’s multiple ways to put in a request. And assuming that these numbers are Unix-style timestamps… hang on.” She opened up a window and started running some conversions in it. “Yep, looks like it.” She continued narrating as she worked. “And since these are listed oldest-first, down near the bottom should be our two events of interest and… would you look at that, the same IP address for each.”

“Our culprit?” Raskin guessed.

“Probably worth a visit.” MSgt Abernathy agreed.

“But don’t pack your bags just yet,” Col Newmeyer said, stepping into the computer lab behind them. “Or rather, do pack your bags, because I need to send you somewhere else.”

Chapter word count: 1,733 (+66)
Total word count: 31,661 / 50,000 (63.322%)

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Outward: Chapter 17: Panic Mode

It turned out that there were modes of panic that didn’t involve slamming the big red button.

News of Nate’s discovery had rocketed up his management chain, reflected off the project lead, and spread back down to all the offices involved, sending them scrambling to figure out what was going on. Audits sprung up left and right. Most of mid-level management got pulled into meeting after meeting. Most importantly, to Nate at least, was how much of the secondary watch center staff got tasked to trawl through the logs to see if anything like this had happened before.

Nate himself had landed the unenviable job of looking back through the entire history of MOJO firing sequences and correlating them with the daily planning e-mails that listed which jobs the pencil-pushers had vetted and approved. Granted, there were fates far worse than this — Nate had heard the software development teams had been called in to do line-by-line source code reviews — but there was unpleasantness to be found in his job as well. Nate braced himself for it as he lifted up his telephone and dialed the dreaded number.

“IT support center,” the voice at the other end said.

“Hi,” Nate replied, “I need some old e-mails–”

“Please hold while we connect you with the next customer service representative,” the voice continued, before being replaced with music.

Nate groaned and held the handset a few inches away from his ear. He liked Vivaldi as much as the next guy, but not when it was squeezed through the lowest fidelity sampling equipment known to man. Nate didn’t even know how one could make a 56 kilobit MP3 file. It was the sort of thing so terrible it couldn’t be done accidentally; someone had willfully decided that this was what all callers requesting IT support should be subjected to. Which didn’t make any sense, given how he was pretty sure they got paid by the call.

Nate paged through the logs of all MOJO firing sequences. It stretched all the way back to the first test firings of MOJO-1, back before the secondary watch center had even been completed. Scrolling up and forward in time, it looked like all of them were the usual multi-satellite jobs, not the weird singletons he had seen today. That was good. It probably meant he hadn’t missed any previous incidents. His job was safe. On the other hand, it meant he’d need to go through the entire list, line by line, making sure each one matched up with the planning e-mails.

“IT support center,” a different voice at the other end of the line said.

“Hi,” Nate replied, noticeably less enthusiastically than last time, which took some effort, “I need some old e-mails recovered from backup.”

“Please hold.” Another Vivaldi assault.

Of course. Nate knew there were things worse than having IT support outsourced to some backwater town in India. Particularly, having IT support outsourced to Cairo. Cairo, Illinois, to be specific, where evidently it was pronounced Kay-ro.

“IT support center,” a third voice said.

“Yeah,” Nate replied. “I need some old e-mails recovered from backup.”

“OK, sir and or ma’am,” the voice said, not even bothering to hide the fact he was reading from a script, “I am required to inform you that company policy is that all e-mails received must be retained for a minimum of five years, and that it is every employee’s responsibility to comply.”

“I know,” Nate grumbled. If they seriously expected him not to delete e-mails from the server, IT really needed to start giving him more than 100 kilobytes’ worth of space. He made a note to just start forwarding all his work e-mail to GMail. Then Nate smiled as he realized something. “But what I need restored is a copy of all messages sent to the MOJO operations coordination list, including those sent before I was hired.”

There was a pause at the other end, presumably as the tech support drone checked the script for a way to guilt him for not having done the impossible. Nate took the opportunity to act on the note he had made, before the torrent of restored e-mails arrived in his inbox. Nate heard the sound of typing on the other end of the line. “There you are, sir and or ma’am. You should see the restored e-mails arrived momentarily. Have a pleasant day,” the voice recited just before hanging up.

After a few minutes’ wait, the e-mails arrived as promised, and just as quickly got forwarded to GMail. Nate spent the next several hours going through each of the log entries from the watch console to make sure they matched up with the daily planning announcements. He built up his own list cross-referencing log entries against announcements, just to make sure he didn’t overlook anything. Much to Nate’s relief, they matched up perfectly, except for the two events he had already discovered and reported.

With a sigh of relief, he forwarded his list to management. Whatever the problem in the system was, it wasn’t his fault.

For the next several days, Nate kept a more careful eye on the console. He forewent raids in World of Warcraft to keep from getting too distracted as he waited for something to happen, even though nothing ever did.

Finally an e-mail arrived from upper-level management. It proclaimed that the root cause of the problem had been identified and dealt with, without elaborating on any of the details. Nate frowned.

It may not be his responsibility, and it evidently didn’t actually have anything to do with him, but curiosity got the better of him. He wondered how the two mysterious jobs had wound up in the firing system. It would be good for him to know, as a member of the watch center, in case the problem ever came up again, right? He knew he’d like to avoid throwing everyone into a panic for the better part of a week the next time he caught one of the satellites firing off into space. That was a good enough justification for him, at least.

He started calling the people he knew in the project’s other offices to see if they knew anything he didn’t. Nate didn’t even bother requesting information from management, figuring that if they had officially wanted him to know, they would have told him already. Much better to go for the people who do the real work in the organization.

After a few calls, Nate struck gold with Pat, one of the techies who worked on the operations software.

“Yeah,” Pat said, “once we were able to convince management that a zero-based code review wasn’t the best use of our time, we were able to find the problem pretty quickly.”

“Oh?” Nate replied. “How so?”

“How much do you know about the operations workflow planning system?”

“What’s the operations workflow planning system?”

“Ah. Basically, it’s what makes sure all the necessary steps get taken care of from the time a customer requests MOJO time to completion of the mission. Once a request comes in from sales or the online interface, it does some quick processing on it to figure out what needs to be done, and holds off on dispatching the request to the actual operations side of things until it’s all done.”

“What kinds of things?” Nate asked.

“You name it. Just about every office has some piece of it; the workflow system splits off those pieces and sends them out. Accounting has one, to make sure the customer has actually paid. Engineering has a bunch, mostly to make sure the request is physically possible and isn’t going to blow out one of the satellites. That sort of thing. The real beauty of the system is that it’s nonlinear. All the prereqs get forked off and tasked out in parallel, so no one winds up blocking on everyone else. Engineering doesn’t have to wait for the check to clear before verifying the requested power level is going to fry an antenna. Deconfliction makes doesn’t have to wait for the engineers to check if a satellite’s already tied up with another operation. And so on. Without doing all that in parallel as much as possible, there’d be no way we could manage a 24-hour turn-around for our main customers like DoD.” Pat was clearly proud of the system he had helped architect.

“So what went wrong with it, anyway?”

“I’m getting to that. One of the tasks is legal; they do a let’s-not-get-sued check. Once the beam trajectories get computed, it does a check of the target coordinates and all the points the beams pass through to make sure we’re not going to get in trouble.”

“How so?”

“It basically comes down to making sure we have permission for wherever they’re going. The military can target a point in a war zone whereas you or I couldn’t. You could target a point on your own property, as long as you actually own it and the expected blast radius won’t bleed over into someone else’s. Then there’s making sure it’s been cleared with the appropriate local and national officials. Lots of stuff to look at. And you have to look at the entire beam path, or else sooner or later someone will figure out they can time things just right so a beam passes through some other country’s city even though their supposedly targeting land of their own. It’s a huge mess.”

“I bet.”

“Anyway, the workflow system cross-checks the trajectories and coordinates with national airspaces, territorial borders, existing authorizations, and whatnot, and gives legal a list of all the things it needs to check out. That was the problem. Firing out into space means you don’t cross any of those zones, since you’re not firing anywhere close to the planet. And since the planning notification tasks didn’t get queued up until legal got resolved….”

“They never showed up in the planning e-mails.”

“Right, and that’s why the job got forwarded into firing control without planning finding out about it. We fixed that bug in the workflow now, so it won’t happen again.”

Well, Nate thought, that explained that, at least. Though he still wondered who would be interested in firing out into space in the first place, or why. He’d try making a few calls, but he could guess he already knew the answer: customer identities were confidential information. But he still had all the technical details of the two events, and he had plenty of time to do a little outside research on his own. The next raid would have to wait.

Chapter word count: 1,770 (+103)
Total word count: 29,928 / 50,000 (59.856%)

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