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"It has to be," Matt Selman said, standing and staring at rows of figures on his monitor. The data arriving in his office at the University of Houston was coming from the University of Hawaii's astronomy department, routed through a geosynchronous satellite. He touched a key. The screen flickered and the columns of figures were replaced by a graphic representation. A line appeared at the edge of the large screen directly above his desk and progressed toward the center. The line was green at its origin, then gradually changed to a dark red color.
"Why?" Tara Whitley asked from beside him, her voice holding a tremor of excitement. "How can you tell?" She was looking at him, not the monitor.
Matt shrugged, as if the moment wasn't really so momentous that it was causing his pulse to race. "Easy. Once they backtracked, they found it was accelerating from the moment it appeared, and now it's decelerating."
For a long moment Tara was speechless. Without really thinking about it, she found her hand gripping Matt's upper arm. She simply stared at the monitor, trying to make herself believe in what Matt had told her and what the data had just revealed. Unconsciously, she glanced around to see whether anyone else was in the room with them who might laugh at her reaction to the improbable data. The information was coming from Pan-STARRS, the Panoramic Survey Telescope, then downloaded to their own astronomy department at the University of Houston. The Pan-STARRS had been developed by the University of Hawaii, and was used, among other duties, to detect potentially dangerous objects which might threaten Earth.
Matt noticed Tara'sreaction and grinned, making him look younger than the forty years he had just reached. "No use in thinking Houston can keep this a secret. Hawaii's already got the data, as well as Colorado and a dozen other places." He was still getting used to having his new assistant around. He had worked by himself so long that having someone to share the duties had come as a surprise, one he hadn't been sure he would like at first. Now, though, he was glad to have another person to share his delight at this latest development from the Pan-STARRS telescope. It had worked exactly as it was designed to, although had the phenomenon on his monitor occurred a week later, the scope would have been involved in a large scale survey of far more distant objects for several weeks and another observatory would probably have made the discovery. He doubted that survey would occur now! Not with an alien object entering the solar system--and doing it in a fashion which only wild theorists had thought possible.
Tara forced a smile, though amusement was the last thing she was feeling at the moment. "I'm trying to imagine what the public reaction will be. After all the decades of searching and thousands of science fiction stories depicting this exact scene, I'll bet no one will believe it at first."
"We won't have much to say about it," Matt pointed out. "The news is already circulating. I'll bet CNN is already on it, or will be soon. Something like this is too awesome for a cover-up."
"But I'll bet some politicians will try--or at least downplay its significance."
"Of course they will," Matt said, glad to find that Tara shared his view of politics, in this instance anyway. He suddenly noticed how close she was standing and how fiercely she was gripping his arm. Although nothing romantic had developed between them, he held a rather faint hope that something might. Their disparity in age had kept him from broaching the subject so far. She was barely in her mid-twenties, fifteen years younger than he. Besides, he was no hunk, nor very good looking, what with shocks of reddish hair that wouldn't stay in place and a sprinkling of freckles across his face. Why would someone like her, a young pretty woman with raven hair and a ready smile, be interested in him? Not to mention the fact that anything he said to her along those lines might be taken as sexual harassment. Despite the easy nature of their relationship to date, she was a subordinate, working for him.
"Well, what do we do next?"
Matt brought his thoughts back from the realm of unfulfilled desire to the reality of the present. He suddenly felt a little woozy, a delayed reaction from the spurt of adrenalin that had rushed through his body upon first discerning the import of the downloaded data. "I think the first thing I'd better do is sit down. I got a little too excited and didn't realize it." He gently removed her hand from his arm and sat down in the chair in front of the monitor. He looked at her. "Pull up a seat, Tara, and we'll see if we can find out what the initial reactions are on the net." He grinned at her. "I bet they'll be good for some laughs, huh?"
* * *
"What in hell is on that geek's mind to make him so goddamned insistent on seeing the president?" Chase Redglove asked, but got no immediate answer from his subordinates. They were used to the White House chief of staff talking to himself.
Finally one of the junior members present ventured an opinion. "It has to be about that so-called spaceship, sir."
"Spaceship? What goddamned spaceship? We've got more important things to do than talk about a fucking spaceship! Those goddamned rocket scientists think the space program is the only fucking thing in government worth spending time or money on."
They were also used to Redglove's bursts of profanity.
"Uh, sir, I don't think it's about the space program," Gene Flanders, his senior assistant, said. "There's news circulating on the net about…" He hesitated a moment, trying to decide how to put it to Redglove without having his boss skin the hide from his neck for bringing it up. "…well, they're saying a spaceship from outside of the solar system is on a path toward Earth."
Redglove's mouth set in lines of pure disgust. "Goddamn it Gene, that fucking SETI program has been wasting government money for decades. Tell Marvin Stanforth to go to hell. No, wait." He pierced the junior assistant who had spoke first with his eyes. He pointed, not remembering the woman's name. "You go tell him. Don't hurry back."
Blushing furiously, the young lady left the room, trailing thoughts behind her that would have gotten her fired on the spot had they been vocalized.
Redglove flipped a page on the morning's agenda. "Okay Gene, I need you to brief that fucking Marine general who's causing all the flak about shortfalls in equipment. Make it plain to him that we don't have the money and don't have an ice cube's chance in hell of getting it any time soon. Shut him up. See the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs if you have to, but I want him stifled. Goddamned Marines, think they're fucking supermen, let them use what they have."
The phone in front of him rang. Redglove was already so irritated that he picked it up himself. "What!" he yelled. "No! You ever call again while I'm in a meeting you can kiss your fucking job good-by. Huh?" Chase's face split in a grin. He slammed the phone down. "Takes care of that," he said, nodding to himself. "The president's science advisor just quit. Or at least I think so. Now where were we?"
* * *
Marvin Stanforth seethed, fantasizing over ways Chase Redglove might meet a slow and painful death. Redglove was practically a card carrying Luddite, so far as Marvin was concerned, and a bigot besides, who made little effort to conceal his distaste for anyone other than pure white Anglo Saxons in government--or any other position of authority. Marvin waved his admin assistant away and sat at his desk, chin propped on clasped hands, trying to think of his next move. He didn't really want to quit his job, though he had come close to saying so a moment before. Anyhow, right now the important thing was figuring out a way to bypass Redglove and get to the president. This event was earth-shakingly important and the president had to be made to realize it. He brought one hand away from his chin and down to his desk, then began tapping its surface with his forefinger. Somehow, that always helped him think when he needed to solve a problem in a hurry.
A few minutes later Marvin picked up the phone. He hated using his race to get what he needed, but in this case he felt it was justified. The president was of necessity a political animal; there was no other way to get elected these days. If Redglove wouldn't listen to his science advisor after being told plainly there was an emergency, then perhaps the president would talk to a politician. In this case, Ramon Clearman, titular head of the Democratic Party in California and chairman of that state's black caucus, might be the man. He dialed Ramon's number from his near-eidetic memory.
"Hello, Marvin. What's on your mind?" Ramon answered after Marvin had waded through a couple of flaks who guarded access to their boss.
"I need to see the president and Chase is tuning me out."
Copyright © 2007 Darrell Bain.