by James Savik
Paranal Observatory, European Southern Observatory
Cerro Paranal, Chile
October 22, 2016
The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope Array was focused deep in the blackness of intergalactic space examining galaxies that dated to within a few billion years of the Big Bang when Director Addler's phone began to ring.
The first call came from Dr. Willoby at the Australian National Astronomical Observatory. Old Jack had found something strange and he wanted confirmation but Addler begged off. The VLTA time had been booked for months. If he bumped anyone his observation schedule would be a nightmare.
The second call came twenty minutes later from Dr. Kim at the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in the Hawaiian Islands. Time on the Keck was every bit as precious as time on the VLTA but Kim had scrubbed observations. Something weird is moving through the Southern Cross and the US Air Force and NASA were burning up his phone lines.
Two more calls came in in short order urging Addler to look at a target of opportunity: the Gemini Science Center and JPL from Pasadena. The eyes of the scientific world were focusing on a constellation in the Southern Hemisphere and Addler would be damned if the VLTA would miss the party.
He was just dialing in to the coordinates supplied by Jack Willoby at the Australian National Observatory when a Puma helicopter landed a contingent of Royal Marines and a Royal Navy Captain. The heavily armed Marines surrounded the site and the Captain entered the control room as the object began to resolve on screens.
It looked like an opaque green smudge on the monitor; a simple gas cloud like the thousands of nebulae that the observatory had photographed and studied.
The Captain handed Addler a legal sized envelope with a NATO seal and said, “Find out all you can about this thing Doctor Addler. It is making people in high places a spot barmy.”
As they were watching the screens the object moved out of the field of view. Addler thought damn, that thing is really moving.
He spoke to the scopes operator, his long-time associate Tommy Crenshaw and said, “Adjust the slewing so we can track the bugger.”
Crenshaw said, “Sir, we’ve got a line-spectra of the object.”
Addler walked over to the console, “Let’s see it Tommy.”
The line spectra resolved on one of the big monitors but looked like nothing that he had ever seen before. “What are we looking at Tommy?”
The operator said, “Wait a minute. It’s blue-shifted by quite a wide margin. Let me apply a software filter and…”
The line spectra resolved again but this time it looked somewhat more familiar. Crenshaw said, “The object isn’t radiating visible light. What we are seeing is reflected sunlight. The peaks on the spectra we’re seeing are hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon and oxygen. The other stuff has to be molecular. That will take a while to sort it out.”
Suddenly Andy Peterson, a quiet but steady young physicist exclaimed, “Director!”
Addler said, “What have you got Andy?”
“Two items Dr. Addler. I have the objects proper motion mapped. In about twenty minutes we’re going to have an occulation of the object in front of Alpha Crucis. When that happens we’ll get a much better probe of what that cloud is made of.”
“Good job Andy”, Addler exclaimed. “Okay everybody. Get ready. I want a full spectrum analysis of the occulation event. IR, UV, optical- the works.”
“What’s the second item Andy?”
Peterson said, “I’ve run the calculation six times and there is no doubt. With the blue-shift in the spectra and the objects apparent motion- its speed is about .75 C.”
There was a moment of stunned silence in the control room until the Captain asked the obvious question: “What moves at three quarters of the speed of light?”
Addler replied, “Nothing that we know of.”
As the team started to set up the equipment to observe the stellar occulation, the Captain asked, “Excuse me Dr. Addler. What will this tell us?”
Addler replied, “The object is going to move between us and a bright binary star called Alpha Crucis. It’s the brightest star in the Southern Cross and its spectra is well understood. A. Crucis is actually a pair of B class super-giants. They are hotter than most and have broad emission lines in their spectra. When that star light passes through the object, the material will produce absorption lines on top of A. Crusis’s spectra and we’ll have a much better idea of what it is made of.”
The control room got extremely busy as the team prepared for the occulation event. Addler picked up the phone and dialed up their sister facility ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array, an array of high resolution radio telescope and asked them to drop what they were doing and home in on the mystery object.
ALMA called back as soon as they were dialed in. The object was emitting decametric radio noise indicating lightning. From 4 to 3.95 MHZ, the characteristic spikes and pops of lightning resulting from some kind of high-energy synchrotron process were loud and distinct.
Addler set the phone back on the receiver. He sat down in his chair and noticed that his hands were shaking.
Crenshaw announced that the occulation was beginning.
For fifteen minutes the starlight of Alpha Crucis passed through the cloud and was collected by the VLTA’s various sensors. He watched as the computer decomposed the spectra into its components: OH, H2O, CN, CH4, complex hydrocarbons.
Adler sat staring at the display in front of him.
The Captain asked, “What does it mean Doctor?”
Addler said, “It’s… organic.”
University of South Dakota
“Throughout the fossil record we can see that evolution proceeds in stops and starts. It does not and has not proceeded in a straight line.”
Dr. Jerry Cassidy drew a time line on his white board and put five tics on the graph. He knew that half his students were asleep and the rest only cared because they needed a mid-level science elective to graduate.
“The great extinction events have had a major effect on the biological world. Every so often something happens- asteroid impacts, super-volcanoes- there are numerous causative theories, which forced a large number of species to go extinct in a relatively short time. In Earth’s history it has happened five times. Just for laughs, let’s look at the Permian extinction.”
“The Permian Extinction occurred around 250 million years ago. It was so severe that it is often called the Great Dying. Seventy percent of terrestrial species and up to ninety-six percent of marine species went extinct almost overnight. 57% of all families and 83% of all genera became extinct. It’s the only known event that caused mass extinctions among insects. Blastoids, trilobites and eurypterpids, all highly evolved families of organisms, vanished in relatively short order after being plentiful for eons.”
“Mass extinction events have been most harsh on highly specialized organisms because when their environments changed, they couldn’t adapt to new conditions. After mass extinction events only the most robust and adaptable organisms remained. Extinctions have acted like the evolutionary reset switch and afterwards everything changes.”
Cassidy looked at his watch and saw that it was just a few minutes to eleven and said, “All right class. Read chapter 12 and be ready to discuss the five major extinction events and their influence in evolutionary terms. Have a nice weekend.”
Amanda Nelson stopped by his desk and said, “Am I the only one that noticed that you wrote this chapter?”
Cassidy smiled and said, “In this class, Miss Nelson.”
The classroom emptied quickly as Cassidy packed his briefcase for his walk back to his office.
He didn’t notice the men in suits waiting for him until he left the lecture hall.
World News Network
Kelly Simmons, the Pac Bureau’s science correspondent, had five minutes’ notice that there would be a full staff meeting in the Bureau Chief’s conference room. Everyone that wasn’t in the field or on the air was supposed to be there.
Something very odd was going on even in her little niche of the kingdom. Scientists loved to talk about their work. Many of them saw outreach and education as vital part of their job. They loved to tell you all about their newest micro-chips or pulsars. Public or private sector, they all wanted publicity for their work.
Something had changed over the weekend. Most of her contacts at universities and research institutions were suddenly unavailable. Even good old Jack Willoby of the Australian National Observatory was unavailable and not answering his private cell phone. Their staffs said that they were either on leave or at a conference. She was getting stonewalled by people that she usually couldn’t get to shut up.
The staff hurried into the big conference room on the first floor. She took the seat behind Liam Ross of the political desk. She said, “Liam, you have any idea what this is about?”
He replied, “No but it’s making me nervous. The Yanks, NATO and the Aussie military just announced a massive joint forces military readiness exercise and are calling up their reserves. That’s just not done. Those sorts of exercises are announced months ahead of time.”
Quinton Bagley of the International desk said, “That’s not even the best of it. Yesterday the Yanks had a closed joint session of Congress and our Parliament is doing the same. Something serious is afoot.”
Drew Collins, Bagley’s second asked, “China? North Korea?”
Bagley shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. They haven’t even been rattling their sabers. My guess is Iran. Maybe they tested a nuke or something.”
The Bureau Chief Ian McAlister entered the room and had a quiet word with a technician. There was a brief discussion and Ian motioned to his staff for quiet. The monitors around the room came to life as the teleconference connection was established. Soon the all of the networks major Bureaus were online: New York, London, Washington, Montreal, Los Angeles, Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo.
McAlister stepped up to the podium and began, “err, yeah, G'day everyone. I am Ian McAlister: Chief of the Sydney Bureau. For the last few days we Bureau Chiefs have been talking. We have all seen a number of strange things happening with no explanation at all. At first we wrote it off as the usual stuff that happens over a weekend. It’s now Monday afternoon and we still have no answers. We arranged this teleconference to see if we can figure things out.”
“Brian Barnes: Washington Bureau. Before dawn this morning the President’s press secretary faxed everyone on his list that the President and Vice President’s schedule had been canceled through Wednesday. There is a closed Joint Session of Congress. The Pentagon announced a surprise Joint Forces Readiness Exercise and has called up the National Guard and Reserves.”
“Richard Holmes: London Bureau. The situation here is similar to that in Washington. The Joint Forces Readiness Exercise was announced by NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces in Brussels. Downing Street and Parliament have been quiet. All the European Union’s militaries, including France, are calling up their reserves. All the naval vessels that are ready have put to sea and the rest are making ready.”
“Gregori Petrovich: Moscow Bureau. We are seeing the same military activity that you describe. Our sources tell us that NATO and Chinese officers have been seen inside the Kremlin and that Strategic Rocket Forces are on high alert.”
“Walter Neville: Beijing Bureau. We have been asked by the Peoples Republic to suspend operations until Wednesday. Before we were shut down, we too received reports of a massive military mobilization and the Peoples Republic Civil Defense has been activated. I get the impression that we are under martial law without actually declaring it.”
“Takeo Kurita: Tokyo Bureau. There has been a call up of the Self Defense Forces. We have confirmed that Japanese, South Korean and Chinese naval vessels have joined an American carrier battle group and are operating under a unified command in the East China Sea.”
McAlister spoke: “I have spoken to our correspondents in Cairo and Tel Aviv. The Middle East has been quiet for months. North Korea has been quiet as their new Great Leader consolidates his power. I just don’t understand it. A mobilization of this size and traditional adversaries appear to be working together? What are we missing?”
Someone from the New York Bureau said, “If it’s not a big, ugly war brewing the implications are frightening. Has there been an outbreak of some sort of disease? We’ve been hearing about bird flu and drug resistant pathogens for years.”
The London Bureau answered, “We have rock solid sources at the World Health Organization. There are no reports of any unusual or particularly dangerous outbreaks.”
“Paul Kincaid: Los Angeles Bureau. We have reports of numerous scientists on University campuses being approached by men in suits and driving away in SUVs. I thought it was just crazy conspiracy talk but the reports are adding up. Faulk and Conners from UCLA, Jenkins from UCLA and a handful of guys from Stanford: all well-known and famous in their own fields.”
Petrovich of the Moscow Bureau said, “We have seen this too. Many Academicians have been suddenly called to a conference at Novosibirsk.”
McAlister asked, “What scientific disciplines do the scientists represent?”
Kincaid replied, “Faulk is a physicist, Conners is a biologist and Jenkins is an astro-physicist. The guys from Stanford are all either in the biosciences or the physical sciences.”
Petrovich said, “It is the same is Russia.”
McAlister sighed and said, “Does anybody have anything that might shed any more light on this?”
Kelly said, “Sir, late last week I saw something odd that I wanted to follow up today but none of my contacts are available. I get a copy of the email listserve that the big observatories in the Southern hemisphere use to coordinate their activities. Friday night there was a lot of traffic between the Australian National Observatory, the Keck in Hawaii and the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Dr. Willoby of the ANO found something and wanted the other observatories to confirm his findings as it was near dawn in Australia. Keck and the ESO apparently did follow up as did the JPL and the Gemini. That’s when everything stopped. The mailing list went dead and there hasn’t been a peep out of any of them since.”
Shocked silence followed.
Someone said, “Oh God. They found something out there.”
Kelly said, “It doesn’t make sense. ANO was doing a survey of Wolf-Rayet stars in the Southern Hemisphere. The VLTA in Chile was looking at the most distant galaxies visible and the Keck was looking at star forming regions in distant galaxies. Those are all deep space objects. I can’t imagine what they might have seen that would have caused such a panic.”
McAlister said, “It’s a lead and right now it’s the only lead that we have. Kelly, do you remember that retired bloke who discovered the comet last summer?”
“Yes- that’s Mr. Chambers. He built an observatory for himself out near Coolgardie in Western Australia when he retired in 2005. Since then he’s discovered a comet and a handful of asteroids.”
McAlister said, “I need you and a remote team on a plane for Coolgardie in a half hour. Take the information you got from the email conversation and see what Mr. Chambers can find. We need to see what they’ve found out there.”
“Everybody else: I don’t care what you have to do. Beg, borrow, bribe, and abduct your sources if you have to: just get us something we can use!”
Secret US Government Lab
Dr. Jerry Cassidy rubbed his eyes. He had been assigned to a team called the Biosciences Work Group and had been looking at the same data since he arrived at the lab called “Site K”.
There simply weren’t enough pieces of the puzzle to come up with even a wild guess at what the cloud was that was rapidly approaching Earth. He stood up and walked the short distance down the hall to the break room.
Dr. Hart of Tulane, a biochemist and Dr. Turner of Stanford, a botanist, were milling about the break room enjoying the coffee and pastries supplied by Navy stewards.
Hart said, “Jerry, join the party. Are you feeling as useless as the rest of us?”
Cassidy poured a cup of coffee and sat. “I’m not sure what we’re supposed to be doing. I think they looked at the cloud, saw it was green and called for biologists just in case.”
Turner said, “We don’t have nearly enough data to call it a life form but the idea of a species that can travel the stars is fascinating.”
Cassidy asked, “What is the latest?”
Turner the botanist, who had become the de facto team leader presumably because the object in question was green said, “The object is slowing down. It will be visible to amateur astronomers on Wednesday, the naked eye on the following Friday and will be on top of us Monday. We are expecting the best pictures yet from the Hubble space telescope and a new round of spectroscopic observations shortly.”
Hart said, “I’m looking forward to some better images of the object. All we can see is a fuzzy green blob. The chemical analysis so far is nothing really special that hasn’t already been detected in space.”
Turner looked at the tablet computer sitting on the counter and said, “The new images from NASA are here. Let’s go have a look.” His office was closest so Cassidy and Hart followed him. He sat down at his computer, extracted the image files and sent them to the big screen monitor on the wall.
The Hubbell Space Telescope image of the object was much sharper. The cloud was almost oval shape and its green color came from bright filaments. There was some sort of internal structures with clear rod-shapes and more subtle structures deeper inside.
Cassidy said, “If I didn’t know better…”
Dr. Hart started pointing at the structures and said, “Ribosomes, mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum, chloroplasts… I don’t see an obvious nucleus.”
Turner said, “It has characteristics of both a plant and an animal cell.”
“My God… it looks like a common algae”, Cassidy muttered.
Turner picked up his phone. Before he dialed he said, “I think we’ve answered the question they had for us. It’s alive.”
Coolgardie, Western Australia
The network affiliate in Coolgardie met Kelly Simmons at the airport. Her remote crew consisted of a tall, skinny young man named Jack in a shiny red Range Rover. At first she was put off by Jack. He looked and dressed like a kid that should be surfing but he was polite and accommodating. After programming the GPS, she was quite pleased to let him drive the hour and a half out to their destination.
The Range Rover kicked up clouds of red dust as they drove down the long country roads in the dry, scrubby Western Australian grasslands. Jack explained that the area around the old mining town was called the Coolgardie grasslands. The land was grassy with low rolling hills and groves of eucalyptus trees. As they motored past, birds rose from the trees in protest of the temporary disturbance, Western Gray Kangaroos looked on with interest.
She thought about her last encounter with Bill Chambers. He had been a complete surprise to her. The American ex-pat had built a technology company from the ground up, sold it and retired richer than Midas. What did he do? He bought a large tract of land North-West of Coolgardie, built a modest house, a multi-million dollar observatory on a ridge-top and spent his nights looking for comets and asteroids. When she had asked him why he had chosen to spend his retirement as a working astronomer, he had said that he had always been an astronomer. He had just never found anyone to pay him to do it.
She dozed off for a while until the deep, jarring ruts of the rising highlands woke her. Jack noticed that she had awakened and said, “We’re close missus.”
Just over the next rise, they spotted the big white dome and satellite dishes of Chamber’s observatory. It took them another five minutes driving but she spotted the estate over the next big ridgeline.
Chamber’s house was built on the slope of a ridge and stood over a small lake. It was a white two story Victorian style house but the area was really dominated by the observatory built on the crest of the ridge.
Jack drove the Range Rover down the hill and parked near a cluster of vehicles.
Kelly said, “I’m not sure if we’ll need you Jack.”
He smiled and said, “No worries missus. I’m just going to do a little nature photography before it gets dark. Call me on my cell if you need me. I won’t be far.”
She walked up to the front porch of the house and Chamber’s opened the front door. “Kelly. You’re a sight for sore eyes. How are you?”
She said, “Bill, remember last year when you said that you owed me a favor?”
He grinned and said, “You are here to collect?”
She said, “That sums it up nicely.”
Chambers motioned to swing on the front porch and said, “Have a seat and tell me what you need.”
Kelly showed Chambers the email conversations between the great observatories in the southern hemisphere and told him about how they had suddenly gone quiet.
He looked at the coordinates and said, “The Keck in Hawaii is north of the equator. They can’t even see this part of the sky. I’m guessing that they were attempting to coordinate with observatories in the Southern hemisphere- ESO, some here in Australia, others in South Africa and South America.”
Kelly asked, “What could get them so excited?”
Chambers looked carefully at the email transcripts and said, “I don’t know. One thing I can tell you- they were only talking to people with very powerful telescopes. Whatever they were looking for is dim- maybe it’s an asteroid in an odd orbit. I can look into this for you. Follow me.”
Chambers led Kelly out the back door of the house and up concrete steps to the observatory. On their way up a big friendly Australian Shepherd joined them on the stairs walking beside Kelly and giving her a friendly nudge.
Kelly said, “Looks like you’ve made a new friend since last summer.”
Chambers reached down and gave the big, handsome dog a friendly pat. “Scout was a gift from the Aborigines that live nearby and I’m glad to have him. He warns me of snakes.”
Kelly had never been in an observatory and wasn’t sure what to expect. What she saw when they walked inside was definitely not it. The first floor of the observatory looked more like a crowded library than anything else with big work tables and all sorts of computer equipment.
Chambers sat down at a computer terminal and began entering commands. A big plotter came to life and began to print out what looked like star charts on very thin paper.
He said, “The way we track new asteroids is to take high resolution images of big patches of sky. Then we compare them and see what changes and eliminate known objects. I’m printing out negatives of the images that I took last week of the patch of sky that Willoby was interested in.”
She watched as the plotter printed out the big images and asked, “Why are you printing out negatives?”
He took the first print out and put it on a work table for the ink to dry. “In a negative image, the colors are reversed. The black of space appears white and stars and other objects will appear in black. It’s much easier to work with than dark images.”
Once the images were printed out and dried, Chambers took one and put it on a glass topped light-table. He secured the images edges to the table top with masking tape. He said, “This is a star map of the area in question. It will serve as a baseline.”
The second map he took and placed it over the top of the first and tacked down the corners with masking tape. Then he turned on lights and there it was: a long streak across the Southern Cross.
Chambers whistled and said, “I think that we’ve found what you were looking for Kelly.”
Meridian Naval Air Station
Lt. Matt Hollister landed the C-2 Greyhound aircraft at the Meridian NAS field after a long flight home from the big carrier group that had assembled in the mid-Atlantic. He wished that he had been allowed to carry a camera. The assembly of hundreds of ships was really quite remarkable. They had reached across the horizon for a hundred miles in every direction.
It wasn’t just the US Navy and its NATO allies. Russian and Ukrainian flagged ships were sailing side by side the Americans, British, and numerous other nationalities. Hollister didn’t know what was going on but he had a feeling that he was witnessing history in the making as he delivered spare parts and personnel to the USS Eisenhower.
Scuttlebutt said that it was all an international disaster response exercise but somehow that didn’t ring true to Hollister. The F-18 Hornets standing ready on the carrier had been all loaded up with live AMRAMM and Sidewinder missiles. You didn’t need war-shots to deliver rice and MREs.
After a short debriefing with Air-Ops, Hollister was handed new orders. He was to join the air group of the USS George Washington in the Western Pacific and fly out as soon as he recovered from the day’s flight. His wife wouldn’t like it. He dreaded the thought of having to tell her as he got in his Nissan Titan and drove the short distance to base housing. He parked in the driveway beside his wife’s Camry and quietly entered the house.
His wife Lillian was asleep on the love seat surrounded by her student’s papers. The television was tuned to one of the all-news channels with the volume way down. It was playing file footage of the big world-wide military mobilization.
He leaned over and kissed her on the head and said, “Hey baby, I’m home.”
She yawned and stretched, reached out and pulled him down beside her onto the love seat. She put her arms around him, “Oh Matt, that’s my favorite way to wake up. What time is it?”
He replied, “A little after three in the morning.”
“Any idea what all of the ruckus is about”, she asked as she pointed to the TV?
“They say it’s a disaster response drill.”
She sniffed and said, “Since when have the Russians been interested in disaster response?”
Matt smiled and thought that’s why we’re good for each other, we even think alike.
“I don’t know baby. You want to go to IHOP or something?”
She stiffened and said, “You’ve got new orders.”
Hollister said, “How did you know that I’ve got new orders?”
“Every time you show up at 3am and want to go to IHOP, you’ve got new orders. So spit it out Mister Hollister.”
Matt knew that he was busted, “I got assigned to the George Washington. I’m supposed to fly out as soon as I’ve rested up.
“Oh Matt”, she said as she laid her head on his shoulder. She always did that when she didn’t want him to see her cry.
“I’ll be running the mail between Pearl Harbor and the big task force South of Okinawa.”
She said, “How long?”
“I don’t know baby. Sure you don’t want to get some breakfast?”
“No. I’d just cry in my pancakes. Besides, I’ve got new orders for you Lieutenant.”
“Leave me with a baby Matt.”
“Yes Mam. I will give it my best efforts.”
Coolgardie, Western Australia
Kelly watched quietly as Graves worked. He might not be what was called a professional astronomer but it was clear to her that he knew what he was doing.
Graves had archived images of the sky for every night since the object had first appeared that he used to create a track as the object as it moved through the Southern Cross and into Centaurus.
He did some calculations on a white board and ran a few programs in Mathmatica on one of the PCs. Finally he said, “Kelly, I think that I’ve got some answers for you but they’ll only raise more questions.”
Kelly turned on her tape recorder and said, “Go ahead Bill.”
“The object seems to be approaching us from the general direction of Alpha Centauri. It’s moving very, very fast. Much faster than I’ve ever seen a natural object move. According to my calculations, it’s slowing down and it is going to come very, very close to Earth.”
Kelly didn’t know what to say. “Bill, what does that mean?”
“I don’t know what it is but it’s big- very big that I can see it so far out. It’s moving through a part of the Solar System that we call the Oort cloud. It’s going to make a close pass into the inner solar system and… Sorry Kelly. I just don’t know. If you can wait until it’s a little darker, we’ll take a closer look at it with the big scope. Are you hungry?”
She hadn’t eaten since she had been on the plane. “Why yes I am.”
Graves said, “Call your cameraman and I’ll see what I can put together in my kitchen. By the time we eat, it’ll be dark enough for us to have a good look at your bogey.”
“Sorry. That’s from my years in the Air Force. It means unknown.”
Secret US Government Lab
Dr. Turner sat at the head of the conference table. The rest of the Bio-Sciences Team was all present and the odor of coffee was thick in the room. No one wanted to begin. The situation was just so bizarre.
Turner began by saying, “We’re here to make a recommendation to the military in regard to how they should respond to the cloud. Does anyone else here feel like that’s the most ridiculous task they’ve ever been assigned?”
There were a few laughs around the table.
Hart finally said, “They could try to nuke it but it’s wider than Russia and the Pacific Ocean combined. It’s a coherent gas cloud- how would you even hurt it? They could target individual organelles but there are so many and there appears to be a great deal of redundancy. In attacking the thing they could trigger some kind of involuntary response that we can’t anticipate.”
Dr. Jan Tullos, a microbiologist from Vanderbilt spoke up and said, “Another good question is how is it supposed to hurt us? It’s a gaseous creature that lives at a much lower pressure state than our atmosphere. Were it to try to enter our atmosphere it would be torn to shreds.”
Van Morrison of Ohio State, another microbiologist added, “We need to remember that the creature is packing a lot of chlorophyll. There is no precedent in nature for a photosynthetic predator. I honestly don’t see it being a threat.”
Tullos said, “On the other hand, if it is a space cabbage, why is it apparently maneuvering toward earth?”
Cassidy said, “This animal… Or is it a plant? It evolved in space. I don’t think that we can really look for terrestrial analogues. Has everybody seen the latest high-resolution spectrographic analysis?”
Hart opened a report on the table and read, “RNA, proteins, sugars, salts...”
Turner sighed and said, “The more we learn about it, the more familiar it appears.”
Cassidy countered, “With all due respect gentlemen, I’ve never encountered a cabbage that can take off at speeds approaching three quarters of light speed and then maneuver between star systems. It may look like a cabbage but there’s a hell of a lot more going on with this thing than we know. We could study something like this for decades and still not understand what makes it tick.”
Turner said, “OK guys: I need a consensus. The military is pushing us for a decision. Do we think that it’s dangerous?”
Tullos replied, “Anything that we say at this point isn’t even a very educated guess Rob.”
Morrison said, “I’m going to vote for harmless. I’ve never even seen predatory behavior from photosynthetic microorganisms. I don’t think we’re going to see it from this one.”
Hart said, “I’m inclined to agree. I don’t think it’s a threat.”
Tullos said, “I just don’t know but I’m leaning toward harmless.”
Finally it came to Cassidy. The whole table was looking at him. “As an evolutionary biologist I think in terms of how an organism evolves within its own environment and I’m having a hard time coming to grips with this one. It lives in a vacuum where the temperature hovers just above absolute zero. It must live for eons because it apparently travels between the stars. I can’t even begin to guess how it evolved or where it came from. I doubt that it is predatory but it would be foolish to underestimate anything that can live in that environment.”
Mike Bernardi, a biologist from Georgia Tech spoke up and said, “Maybe we are looking at this the wrong way. The two key drivers of animal behavior are eating and procreation. Everything else is just an adaptation. I’m thinking this creature is coming into the inner solar system to charge its batteries between stars. Think about it: how long has this photosynthetic creature been in the long dark of interstellar space? It has to be hungry.”
Tullos laughed and said, “Well, that’s not exactly a cheery thought.”
“It’s photosynthetic, sunlight is its food source, logically it won’t bother us”, Bernardi persisted.
Cassidy said, “It makes sense from a behavioral standpoint. What about the other biological imperative?”
Bernardi said, “Procreation?”
Cassidy sat back in his chair, “What if it’s like a salmon? What if it has been here before? What if something is driving it to come back?”
Bernardi said, “To what… spawn?”
Nervous laughter went around the table but Cassidy wasn’t done.
“Humans as a species have only been around a hundred thousand years or so. Modern man has been around even less. Recorded history is what- two thousand years give or take? A life form like this might even be immortal. We should expect Mother Nature to show us all sorts of things that we’ve never seen before. I’m going to agree with the general consensus. I think the life form will be harmless. We should approach the upcoming encounter as an opportunity for discovery. And recommend that we send the civilian population to shelters.”
Turner said, “Well that’s it then. I’m going to recommend to the President that the military take no provocative action against the life form and that all prudent Civil Defense precautions be taken. Do we have any dissenting opinions?”
Turner looked around the room and none of the scientists spoke up.
“OK ladies and gentlemen. Good work and let’s all get some rest. The President’s announcement will be Wednesday at 1200 our time. Be thinking about how we can study this creature. Something tells me that it may be the most important discovery of our lifetimes.”
Coolgardie, Western Australia
Once again Mr. Graves surprised Kelly and her cameraman. His lamb and rice stew was delicious. The three enjoyed dinner and a pint on the front porch as the shadows lengthened and the sun set.
Kelly excused herself and tried her cell phone and got nothing. She went to the Range Rover and got the satellite phone and dialed her editor.
True to form, he answered on the second ring: “Ian McAlister.”
“Ian, its Kelly.”
“Kelly! I was beginning to think you had gone walk-about, and gotten lost in the outback, girl. What’s the word from Graves?”
Kelly swallowed and said, “We have found the mystery object in his archival photos. As soon as it gets dark enough, he’s going to use his most powerful telescope on it and we should get a good look at it.”
Ian said, “Look Kelly, we’ve been hearing rumors about this thing all day. It’s supposed to come close to earth by early next week.”
“I can confirm that. Graves has tracked its movements.”
“Can you go live?”
“Yes, Jack from our local affiliate seems to be fairly competent.”
Ian sighed and said, “OK, here’s the deal. Call us when you are ready and we’ll go live to you. Say what you’ve got to say and make it snappy OK?”
“Why Ian, what’s going on?”
“We need to get it on the air and out there fast before the government shuts us down. You are sitting on the biggest story of the decade so far. Maybe even the century. This is one of those rare moments like Murrow during the Blitz or Peter Arnett in Baghdad during the first Gulf War. No pressure, just get it done. The world will literally be watching.”
“Thanks boss. I’ll be back to you in about an hour.” Kelly hung up the phone. No pressure at all.
She returned to the table where Jack and Bill were chatting and said, “Guys, I think we just got handed the hottest potato on the planet at the moment. Can we turn on a television Bill, we’ve been out of touch all day.
They moved into Bill’s living room and turned on his satellite television. They turned to one of the all-news channels:
This is Philip Larken reporting from Okinawa. Just south of the island an enormous armada has assembled. American, Japanese, Chinese and South Korean ships are all participating in what is being called a disaster response exercise. We continue to receive troubling reports from high level sources in Seoul and Tokyo that a mysterious object is approaching the earth from deep space and the nations of the earth are banding together to defend the planet. Massive demonstrations demanding the truth have been seen in Japan, China and Korea and are spreading across the Western pacific…
Kelly gasped, “Oh God! What have we gotten into?”
Bill grinned and said, “I think we’re both about to become either famous or infamous. Let’s get the truth out before any more people get hurt. I’ll put a live feed of our findings on the observatory web site so everybody can have a look. Come on Jack, we’ve got some work to do.”
As Jack and Bill stood and began to head for the observatory, Bill turned and said, “Kelly, are you all right?”
She said, “Sorry. I’m just a bit overwhelmed. I’m used to covering tech fairs and product launches. This is... too big for me.”
Bill crossed the room and took Kelly by the hand. “You can do it girl. Just put one foot in front of the other. I used to tell my managers to act like you know what you are doing and people will never know the difference.”
She blinked a tear out of her eye and said, “You really are a good bloke Bill. Why are you still single?”
He said, “I’ve been a widower since 2005 and never got back in the game.”
“Well, I think your prospects are about to get a lot brighter.”
Secret US Government Lab
“Dr. Cassidy, wake up!”
The scientist woke up somewhat disoriented, “What? What’s the matter?”
Cassidy made out Dr. Bernardi’s Italian features when he put on his glasses. “Somebody broke the story! Come down to the common room.”
Cassidy threw on some clothes and joined the rest of the team in the common room. There was a good live image of the object and a pretty Australian reporter was interviewing an astronomer.
Jefferson Elementary School
Lillian Hollister was over seeing a test to her fourth grade math class when there was a knock on her door.
She opened the door and the elderly Mrs. Barnett from across the hall whispered, “Come to the teacher’s lounge right away.”
She turned to her class and said, “Keep working guys. I’ll be right back.”
She followed Mrs. Barnett, the fourth grade English teacher at Jefferson Elementary since Moses was a student, into the teacher’s lounge.
She watched the news broadcast and suddenly all the ruckus of the last week made sense.
Mr. Black, the school principle, elbowed his way into the lounge and said, “I just got a call from the district. Go back to your rooms and turn on the televisions. The President will be addressing the nation shortly.”
Lillian walked back to her class in a daze.
She had her class hand in their papers and turned on the television. She sat in her classroom with her twenty-five fourth graders and waited for President Harrison’s address.
Secret US Government Lab
Jerry Cassidy was impressed. It was almost as if the US Government welcomed aliens from deep space all the time. From the secret lab deep under the Nevada desert, he had a ring side seat for the organized chaos as it happened.
The President’s speech had been brilliant: clear, calm and concise. We are taking action. Don’t panic. The nations of the world are standing together.
Most people took it rather well. Of course, some people went berserk. Thankfully the news people didn’t dwell on the chaos. It wasn’t nearly as bad in the United States as it was in some other countries.
Cassidy and the team continued to study the organism as it approached. He wished that he had years to study it because they were making new discoveries every hour.
The biggest discovery was that the organism was composed of pure plasma. Earth’s atmosphere would be deadly for it so it really was harmless. That one went out to the media immediately.
George Washington Battle Group
East China Sea
Lt. Hollister slept between flights. The 10,000 kilometer hop between Pearl Harbor and the giant battle group surrounding the George Washington was exhausting but the Navy’s mail had to get through.
Sunday morning before another grueling all-day trans-Pacific flight, he checked his email.
After sifting through spam and work related stuff he found a note from his wife. As usual the subject line read Hi with a smiley face.
He opened the email and it read: Come home soon Hubbie. We’re pregnant!
The cloud arrived as expected at 1022 GMT on Monday and began engulfing the atmosphere immediately. It started with Antarctica and began moving north at a rapid pace. It took all the persuasive power that Dr. Turner of the Bio-Sciences Work Group could muster to convince President Harrison that it was not an attack.
It took the cloud a little less than three hours to completely cover the Earth’s atmosphere. A boundary layer formed at the ionosphere at an altitude of 500 kilometers and the fireworks began.
All over the world on both the day and the night sides of the planet, high level lighting began and soon the ghostly green glow of aurora lights could be seen in latitudes where they had never been seen before. Meteors streaked across the sky. Across the world fear gave way to curiosity as people began leaving the shelters to watch the spectacular light show.
After twelve hours, things began to return to a state of normality. Satellite communications was a little dodgy but the planet heaved an enormous sigh of relief as the Cloud proved to be harmless.
Twenty-six hours after its arrival, the cloud began to lift. Much to the delight and amazement of the scientists, it divided. One part of the Cloud moved off in the general direction of Vega and the other toward Sirius.
The Earth and its inhabitants had just witnessed a birth of cosmic proportions.
The Navy stewards who managed the facility brought out a bottle of Champaign and a box of cigars appeared in the room where the scientists had been observing the event.
Dr. Cassidy raised a glass and toasted, “Congratulations ladies and gentlemen! It’s a beautiful baby… something.”
Office of Dr. Walt Haas, OBGYN
4 Months later
Lillian Hollister sat in her doctor’s waiting room with a dozen other expectant mothers. Thumbing through the magazines, she came across one with a picture of a beautiful lasagna on the cover. As she read the recipe a small voice in her mind said wow, that really looks good!
She thought, Maybe I’ll go to Olive Garden when I’m done.
Lasagna, lasagna, lasagna!
Lillian though, Whoa! So this is what a craving is like.
One of the other mothers said, “That’s funny. Suddenly, I’m having a huge craving for lasagna.”
Another one of the ladies said, “Good grief! So am I.”
Lillian said, “Anybody up for a visit to the Olive Garden when we’re done here?”
Her motion passed unanimously.
An hour later, the dozen pregnant women, all of them strangers an hour before, arrived at the Olive Garden at the Bonita Lakes mall.
The waiter who came out to seat them said, “Don’t tell me. You are all craving lasagna?”
Lillian said, “Why yes we are. How did you know?”
As they followed him to their table, they saw that dozens of pregnant women had already been seated.
Suddenly Lillian realized where the voice was coming from.
Get lots of parmesan cheese mommy!