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By Edward M. Lerner
Baen Publishing EnterprisesCopyright © 2005 Edward M. Lerner
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Chapter OneWithout warning, the Toyota pickup swerved in front of Kyle. He tapped his brakes lightly-this near the I-66 exit to the Beltway, such maneuvers were hardly unexpected-and gave a pro forma honk. The yahoo in the pickup responded with the traditional one-fingered salute. The truck's rear bumper bore the message: Have comments about my driving? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Such is the state of discourse in the nation's capital.
Sighing, Kyle turned up his radio for the semihourly news summary. There was no preview of this morning's hearing. That was fine with him: he'd never learned to speak in sound bites. If the session made tomorrow's Washington Post, his testimony might rate a full paragraph of synopsis.
The good news was today's topic wasn't the Atlantis.?
Reliving the disaster in his dreams was hard enough; the science advisor's presence had also become de rigueur for every anti-NASA representative or senator who wanted to use the disaster to justify ending the manned space program. Challenger, Columbia, and now Atlantis ... after three shuttle catastrophes, they spoke for much of the country. By comparison, today's session about technology for improved enforcement of the Clean Air Act would be positively benign.
As traffic crept forward, he tried to use the time to further prepare for the senatorial grilling. He knew the types of questions his boss would have posed to ready him: What would he volunteer in his opening statement? What information needed to be metered out in digestible chunks? Whose home district had a contractor who'd want to bid on the program? Who was likely to leave the session early for other hearings? All the wrong questions, of course, when Kyle wanted to talk about remote-sensing technology and computing loads. There was too little science in the job of presidential science advisor.
In any event, he had to swing by his basement cranny in the OEOB for last-minute instructions. He turned off his radio, which was in any event unable to compete with the bass booming from the sport-ute in the next lane.
The Old Executive Office Building was as far as Kyle got that day-or the next one. About the time he'd traded witticisms with the driver of the Toyota pickup, the emissaries of the Galactic Commonwealth had announced their imminent arrival on Earth by interrupting the TV broadcast of A.M. America.
* * *
The White House situation room held the humidity and stench of too many occupants. Men and women alike had lost their jackets; abandoned neckties were strewn about like oversized, Technicolor Christmas tinsel. Notepad computers vied for desk space with pizza boxes, burger wrappers, and soda cans.
In clusters of two and three, the crisis team muttered in urgent consultation. A few junior staffers sat exiled in the corners, glued to the TV monitors. Everything was being taped, but everyone wanted to see the aliens' broadcasts live. Watching a new message, even if it differed not a whit from the last twenty, provided momentary diversion from the many uncertainties.
Neither Kyle's PalmPilot nor the remaining pizza had wisdom to offer. He looked up at the entry of Britt Arledge, White House chief of staff and Kyle's boss and mentor. The President's senior aide could have been a poster child for patricians: tall and trim, with chiseled features, icy blue eyes, a furrowed brow, and a full head of silver hair. Within the politico's exterior sat a brilliant, if wholly unscientific, mind. Arledge's forte was recognizing other people's strengths, and building the right team for tackling any problem.
Kyle wondered whether his boss's legendary insight extended to the Galactics.
"So what have we got?"
He parted a path for them through the crowded room to the whiteboard where he'd already summarized the data. The list was short. "Not much, but what we do have is amazing.
"The moon now has its own satellite, and it's two-plus miles across. Not one observatory saw it approaching. Once the broadcasts started and people looked for it, though, there it was."
Arledge had raised an eyebrow at the object's size. The NASA-led international space station, two orders of magnitude smaller, was still only half built. "But they can see it now."
Kyle nodded. "It's big enough even for decently equipped amateur astronomers to spot." Far better views would be available once STSI, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, finished computer enhancement of various images. Too bad the supersensitive instruments on the Hubble Space Telescope would be struck blind if it looked so close to the moon. "To no one's great surprise, it doesn't look like anything we've ever seen. Or ever built. The way that it simply appeared suggests teleportation or subspace tunneling or some other mode of travel whose underlying physics we can't begin to understand."
"You've seen the broadcasts, obviously." At Britt's shrug, Kyle continued. "That's a pretty alien-looking alien. Also, White Sands, Wallops, Jodrell Bank, and Arecibo all confirm direct receipt from the moon of the signal that keeps preempting network broadcasts. Overriding network satellite feed, to be precise.
"So far, that's it. I suspect we'll know a lot more soon."
"Commercial," called one of the exiles.
At the burst of typing that announced redirection of the signal, everyone turned forward to the projection screen. A famous pitchman vanished from the display almost so quickly as to be subliminal (it was enough to make Kyle think of Jell-O), to be replaced with the increasingly familiar visage of the Galactic spokesman. No one could read the expression on the alien's face, not that anyone knew that the aliens provided such visual cues, but Kyle found himself liking the creature. What wonderful wit and whimsy to present their announcements only during the commercial breaks.
"Greetings to the people of Earth," began his(?) message. "I am H'ffl. As the ambassador of the Galactic Commonwealth to your planet, the beautiful world of which we were made aware by your many radio transmissions, I am pleased to announce the arrival of our embassy expedition. We come in peace and fellowship."
Kyle studied the alien's image as familiar words repeated. The creature was vaguely centaurian in appearance: six-limbed, with four legs and two arms; one- headed; bilaterally symmetric.
Any resemblance to humans or horses stopped there. His skin was lizardlike: faintly greenish, hairless, and scaled. The legs ended in three-sectioned hooves; the arms in three-fingered claws better suited to fighting than to making or manipulating tools. A wholly unhorselike tail-long, muscular, and bifurcated, with both halves prehensile-appeared to provide counterbalance to the elongated torso. The head had four pairs of eyes, with a vertical pair set every ninety degrees for 360-degree stereoscopic vision. A motionless mouth and three vertically colinear nostrils appeared directly in the torso. The best guess was that H'ffl both spoke and heard through tympanic membranes atop the head.
"Our starship has assumed orbit around your moon. Two days from today, at noon Eastern Standard Time, a landing craft will arrive at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC."
* * *
The control-tower radar at Reagan National tracked the spacecraft from well off the Atlantic coast to touchdown. The blip was enormous: the "landing craft" was larger than an Air Force C-5 cargo carrier. (That heavy-lift air transport had been dubbed the "Galaxy" ... How ironic, Kyle thought.) Fighters scrambled from Andrews AFB reported a lifting-body configuration: a flattened lower surface in lieu of wings. The turbulence behind the spacecraft, visible to weather radars, suggested powered descent.
The spacecraft swooped into sight, following the twists of the Potomac River as agilely as a radio-controlled model plane. The Air Force officer to Kyle's right scowled. "What's the matter, Colonel? You'd rather they fly over the city?"
"I'd rather that their ship wasn't so maneuverable."
Comparing capabilities? Kyle recalled the enormity of the mother ship in lunar orbit, and stifled a laugh.
Civil air traffic had been diverted to Dulles International; the Galactic vessel shot arrowlike to the center of the deserted field, settling onto the X of two intersecting runways. A mighty cheer arose from the throng that nothing short of martial law might have kept away. The shouts faded into an awkward hush as thousands realized that nothing was happening.
Kyle hurried to the tower elevator, descending to join the coterie of welcoming dignitaries. They were already boarding the limos that would drive them to the Galactics' vessel. He wound up in the last car, between a deputy undersecretary of state and an aide to the national security advisor. The woman from Foggy Bottom studied papers from her briefcase.
Stepping from the car, Kyle obtained some new data: the concrete beneath the landing legs of the spacecraft was broken. That thing was heavy. The shout of greeting must have drowned out the report of the runway cracking.
The welcoming party formed two concentric arcs facing the spacecraft, heavy hitters up front, aides and adjutants in back. Kyle took a spot in the second tier, vaguely pleased with his position: his craning at the ship was less obtrusive this way.
Away from the crowd, only the creaks and groans of the ship cooling down from the heat of reentry broke the silence. The sun beat down unmercifully. Kyle tried to memorize details of the ship-shape and proportion, aerodynamic control surfaces, view ports, thrusters and main engines, antennae-even though photographers around the airport and in helicopters overhead were busily capturing everything with telephoto lenses. Sensors hastily installed in the limos were measuring and recording any radiation from the ship.
His overriding impression was one of age, that this ship had been around for a while. Why? After a moment's thought, he focused his attention on the skin of the ship. Under the cloudless noon sky, not a bit of surface glinted. He wasn't close enough to be sure, but the shadowed underbelly of the ship seemed finely pitted. How many years of solar wind had it withstood? How many collisions with the tenuous matter of the interstellar void? Beside him, the diplomats were absorbed in their own unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, questions.
And then, at long last, with soundless ease, a wide ramp began its descent from the underside of the alien ship.
Excerpted from Moonstruck by Edward M. Lerner Copyright © 2005 by Edward M. Lerner. Excerpted by permission.
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