"What do you make of this, Bill?" Sanjay asked, wearing a strange expression.
"I can't say for sure," Bill replied, studying the series of photos displayed on the large computer screen. "Where are these from?"
"Catalina," Sanjay answered. "The top set was last night; the bottom set just came in. I'm still waiting for results from Siding Spring, in Australia, but I've tentatively labeled them PHAs."
"It looks like a cluster of large objects coming in from out system," Bill said, distracted. "They would have to be moving at a pretty good clip to come that far in twenty four hours, so I can see your logic in labeling them as Potentially Hazardous Asteroids. Have you passed this up to the Minor Planet Center?"
"Yes, but you know how fast those guys at the MPC work. They won't be expecting any impacts for the next few centuries, so they'll take their time about analyzing the data."
"Well, we have guys over at Mt. Lemmon that can do some of the analysis." Bill said, still studying the pictures.
"That's what I thought," Sanjay said, "but look at this. I sent the data over to Mt. Lemmon, and they sent me this back..."
A computer graphic replaced the series of photos. It showed a curved line from the current position of the newly discovered bodies, just above the solar system's plane, leading unerringly to Earth, or at least where Earth would be three days from now. He touched another key and the view zoomed in, showing the new bodies transitioning smoothly into a polar orbit around the planet.
"They're decelerating?" Bill exclaimed.
"Looks that way," Sanjay said, trying not to look too smug.
"But, do you realize what this means? Have you contacted SETI? We'd better notify the military as well! We've got to get on the horn with Australia! Can they confirm... ? My God, man! You, my best buddy, friend for life, have just discovered extraterrestrial life! You, pal, are the discoverer of intelligent life from outside the Solar System!"
"Get a grip on yourself, Bill," Sanjay said, laughing. "First of all, we have just discovered ET, not me. Or at least we will have by the time you check my data and confirm my calculations."
"But, wait a minute. Did the guys over at Lemmon go back over previous photos to see if they could track them coming in?"
"Yep. These are, as near as we can tell, the first images of these objects, meaning they just appeared," Sanjay pulled up another display, "and the guys working the Sub Millimeter Array on Mauna Kea reported this burst just moments before they appeared, independent of what we're seeing."
"So what are you saying?" Bill asked, his pulse racing. "Are you implying that these guys came out of hyper-space or something?"
"I'm not saying anything," Sanjay answered, trying to keep his expression neutral. "I'm just reporting my observations."
"What have you got, Sandy?" Dr. Sobieski looked as though he had just gotten out of bed, but then he always looked that way.
"It's something the folks over at CSS sent over," Sandy replied with a slight shake of his head, as if he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing.
"Catalina Sky Surveys, in Tucson?" Sobieski looked puzzled. "They sent it directly? It didn't come through the MPC?"
"Yeah," Sandy answered. "They've discovered a whole group of bodies that, from all appearances, just appeared from nowhere, going like bats out of hell, straight for Earth, and decelerating like they intend to go into orbit."
"Decelerating?" Sobieski's sleepy eyes were suddenly wide and alert. "You're sure they're not just getting some sort of gravitational effect from one of the planets, or the sun?"
"Not likely," Sandy replied, "they're coming in from above the plane of the ecliptic."
"Holy... ! But how big are these things?"
"At least five kilometers across," Sandy replied, "It's hard to get anything definitive on the size, because they are almost as irregular as asteroids, but their surface reflectivity seems to shift. We can't get any definitive spectral analyses because of that, either."
"Have we tried opening communications?"
"Everything we've got," Sandy shrugged. "They're still several light minutes away, but they should have had time to reply if they're going to."
"Has the military been notified?"
"The CSS guys already notified them, and we're in communication with them as well, but so far we have nothing to add to what the guys in Arizona told them."
The control room was, for a change, abuzz with activity. The once boring mission of keeping watch over the Air Force's defense satellites had suddenly gotten exciting.
"Sir, that's going to expend quite a bit of the remaining fuel for the attitude jets," one of the technicians responded when the order was given to re-aim certain cameras.
"I'm well aware of that, son," Colonel Hardesty answered, wishing the damn technicians were military. He wouldn't have to repeat himself to people trained to take orders. "Just do as you're told."
High above Earth's atmosphere, attitude jets on four satellites fired, spinning them on their axes. At precisely the right moment, those jets fired again, stopping the spin. Camera lenses which were normally trained on Earth's surface now scanned the blackness of space, locking onto a single point in the night sky.
Digital pulses caused CCD arrays to send their images to temporary memory storage which was then read, encoded, and sent back to Earth. Then, simultaneously, all four streams of images stopped.
"Sir!" one of the technicians almost shouted. "The satellites have gone dead!"
Colonel Hardesty, who, with no control duties to attend to had been studying the stream of images, already knew why.
The White House was even busier than usual. It wasn't every President who got to host a reception for a newly crowned King of England. The entire staff was busy with final touches on the decorations, laying out hors d'oeuvres and opening bottles of expensive champagne.
The President and First Lady, too, were busy with final preparations.
Celeste straightened the bowtie and gave him one last critical inspection before passing his attire with the barest of nods.
Martin Wang, seeing his wife clad in the expensive designer gown, thought about how lucky he was. Even after two children, Celeste was a striking woman. The few marks left on her face by the ravages of time served only to enhance its character.
"Come along, dear," He said affectionately, taking her arm in his, "Wouldn't want to keep King Charles waiting, now, would we?"
Escorted from the residence by the ubiquitous secret service agents, the President could not help but think what a handsome couple they made.
His reverie was cut short when he saw Roger Davies, his Chief of Staff, hurrying toward him, a worried frown upon his face.
A whispered exchange, out of earshot of the First Lady, then Martin returned to his wife, kissed the back of her hand, and said, "I'm sorry, dear, but something's come up that requires my immediate attention. Roger will see you to the reception. I'll join you shortly."
Without a backward glance, President Wang set off down the corridor at a brisk pace. Celeste sighed exasperatedly, then, brightly, offered her arm to the chief of staff.
"What are we looking at, Mr. Secretary?" The President asked as he took his seat in the situation room of the White House.
"I wish I knew, sir," The Secretary of Defense shook his head. "The people over at Catalina Sky Surveys were first to notice them. At first they thought it might be an uncharted group of asteroids, but then they noticed that they were decelerating, matching orbits with Earth. We got these pictures from some of our satellites before the ships destroyed them."
The screens showed various views of a number of oddly shaped craft. No two bore the same shape, though each seemed to be approximately the same mass as the others.
"How big are those things?" President Wand asked the first thing that came to mind.
"Our best guess is that each one could swallow several supertankers and have room left over for dessert," The Defense Secretary answered.
"Are they hostile?" The President stared in wonder at what appeared to be living proof that the creationist ideology that had regained popularity of late was, if not wrong, at least incomplete.
"We can't say for sure, sir," The Secretary replied. "Clearly, they have weapons and know how to use them, since every military satellite in orbit, not just ours, was destroyed before these things even achieved orbit, but they haven't touched communication or weather satellites. That could signal either hostile intent or self protection. They might have decided to combine a self-protective strike with a show of force for our benefit."
"Naturally, we've tried to contact them..." The president looked around the room.
A man wearing a rumpled sport coat and horn-rimmed glasses cleared his throat. He looked as if he felt completely out of place, and indeed, amongst the sharply tailored business suits, crisp military uniforms, and hundred dollar haircuts, his clothing and disheveled, thinning hair set him well apart from the others.
"Uh, Dr. Sobieski, Mr. President," He mumbled. Fortunately, the microphone in front of him amplified his voice enough for the others to hear, despite his mumbling. "Current head of SETI. That stands for, uh 'Search... '"
"' ... for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, ' yes, I know Doctor," The President finished for him. "I've always hoped you guys would come up with something exciting for us one day, but I never imagined it being quite like this. What have you got?"
"Well, nothing, sir," The scientist scratched nervously at his bald spot. "We've tried communicating with them on every wavelength we can produce, and listened on every wavelength we can detect, and frankly, we're stumped. Not only have we not gotten any response from them, but we can't detect any sort of emission from their ships, not even anything that could be construed as ship-to-ship communication. There was a burst of high frequency radio waves just before they appeared, but that seems to have more to do with their mode of transportation than with communication."
"When you say you've tried everything, what does that encompass?" The President probed.
"Every electromagnetic wavelength we know about from extreme low frequencies to extreme high frequencies, on into infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, and beyond. We've started with basics - counting pulses and so forth, all the way to complex math and physics, but to no avail." The scientist shook his head. "We've even experimented with modulated gravity waves, x-rays and gamma radiation at low levels, but nothing has elicited a response."
"Maybe we should be good neighbors and pay them a visit," the President joked. "'Welcome them to the neighborhood, ' so to speak. While we're at it, we might ask them how they're going to pay for the destroyed satellites." His voice turned serious once more. "Are we absolutely certain that this isn't one of our present neighbors exhibiting unexpected capabilities?"
The President's National Security Advisor spoke up. "The Russians virtually shut down their space program decades ago except for launches to maintain their space station. Frankly, their economy couldn't sustain a program even a tenth this ambitious. The European Union has the bucks, but there's so much infighting, and security's so lax in their space program that they'd never manage something like this without us knowing about it. The Chinese program is still in its infancy. No sir, I can't say with 100% certainty, but it is highly unlikely that any of them are responsible for this."
"If someone else on earth owns these toys, I want to know about it yesterday!" The President said, "Meanwhile, on the assumption that these ships are what they appear to be, let's find out how to communicate with them. They haven't attacked, so maybe they are friendly. Let's find out. Have we got anything ready to launch so we can go play 'Welcome Wagon' with these things?"
"Nothing at the moment. Our people are accelerating the prep of the next shuttle in rotation, and we're working to launch a stealth satellite that should be able to get us more data, but that's several weeks away," Bill replied.
"Don't launch without my say-so, Bill," The President admonished. "Expedite those preparations, but I want to try to be damned sure we don't provoke these beings, who- or what-ever they are, if we can help it."
"That may not be our call, Sir," Bill said. "We have indications that the Chinese are pushing up their next launch and there's been a lot of encrypted traffic between Moscow and their space-station. Word is that the EU is readying another probe, as well."
"All right, stay on top of it. I'll try to get on the horn with the leaders of those countries and see if we can reach a consensus on how to proceed."