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Shepherd Moon, Chapter 4: Interception

 

Silence came over the room; most of them were a little overwhelmed.

"Well," Bill said, "what do you think?" He was smiling broadly.

"That was very beautiful, William," Allie said.

"Thank you, Allie. I just hope it'll work."

They paused for a while before continuing with more prosaic matters.

"Artistic values aside," Jerry said, breaking the mood, "we took pains in keeping everything on the most general level possible. If you will notice, besides our location, there's nothing specific about the Earth in the film. Glimpses and hints, really. That way, we can gloss over the faster-than-light issue."

"Isn't this risky? What will happen when the Tirosians pick this up?"

"We know that the Tirosians will get wind of it sooner or later, but, if this works the way we intend it to work, the Federation won't look too kindly on the Tirosians interfering with a newly discovered race. They might even ask us to become members right there and then."

"That's what we’re hoping for," Bill said. "We're betting that the Tirosians won't risk all-out war just because of us. Even so, it's still a calculated risk. But, in any case, war is inevitable between the two, even if it's not because of us. Best projections show that, within the next two years, hostilities would be so bad that war will formally be announced. When it comes to that, at least we'll be on the side of the good guys, right? I mean, I don't have to ask which side we'd rather be on, do I?"

"Yes, William, you're right. I agree completely. Now, about your plan. How do you propose to start with this project?"

"Well, first, we have to send this transmission out as soon as possible. Our first big stumbling block there is the Radio/Phase-Wave transmitter. I think we've got that licked but we won't know until we use it.

"Next is for you to announce our findings in a joint, closed-door session of the U.N. no later than next week. Marc can help you there. And have them approve the formation of a unified military force under complete U.N. control, as well as appropriating sufficient manpower and resources for it."

Allie shook her head. "Few will agree to that. There's still a general aversion in them regarding full militarization. No one can really blame them. But Ambassador Valker's growing isolationist movement is gaining ground among many of the representatives. We have to move fast."

"We have some ideas about that: It really depends on how you treat it. We have to sell them the idea that this is a matter of necessity, which it is. We are faced with a very real power threat of immense proportions. We must be prepared. We have no choice, really. We have to get full support. We just have to.

"Also, doing that isn't so difficult. We've checked around. Ever since the Asteroid Wars, the old bases in the Outer Planets and on the moon have remained mostly dormant but, as far as we can tell, they're still functional. There are also a lot of military spacecraft out there, mainly in mothballs. Most of them are still functional. And if they aren't, we can melt them down and use them as sources of metal and refurbish the bases that can be rehabilitated: We won't need to do expensive space-mining operations."

Bill took a deep breath. "It won't be easy. Sure, we know that. But it won't be that hard, too. If we do this right. We had a vote, the CETI council, I mean, on this matter. It was a landslide - the majority decided to push through with it. It's your decision, now, Allie."

"All right," Allie said, and struck the table. "We'll do it. If you can swing it, maybe I can, too."

Everyone nodded in agreement.

"I'll start negotiations as soon as I get back. But you realize, of course, that I have to be totally open with them. I can't push all this through without letting them know all about your research."

"I know," Bill said. "Here's everything that you'll need." He thumped down five or six thick binders and some cassettes, disks and recording chips. He grinned mischievously.

Allie groaned. "William, you sadist." She eyed the material balefully. She gestured to her assistant to pick up the reports and disks.

"You must realize the importance of keeping this matter secret, Ma’am," Jerry said. "We can't afford to have the public go into panic over this."

"Your point on keeping this hushed up is well taken, Commander. Rest assured that I will take all steps necessary to maintain secrecy."

"Speaking of which," Bill said, "I think you have to put a clamp on our research team. They were the ones who made that tape you saw. They suspect that something is up and I'd rather not have rumors floating around."

"Do not fear, William," Allie said, and called in her guard captain. She mumbled some orders and the Captain left with one of his people in tow.

"There, I've put those people under detention. A day or two of sweating and they won't be so eager to talk."

"I wouldn't ordinarily trouble you with something like this but they're outside consultants and I don't have any authority over them."

Allie smiled. "I'll have my committees stop sending you people and you can start picking your own." She stood up and closed her briefcase with a snap. The meeting was at an end.

"All right," she said, "I'll start the ball rolling on my end and you start everything on yours. I must admit, William, your people gave us an eye-opener. Don't worry; I'll give this top priority."

"Thank you."

"When do you plan to send up that transmission of yours?"

"Oh, if all goes well, probably in a few weeks. I plan to send it up just after your U.N. meeting. I want to make it a big event."

"All right." She made a move towards the door. "In that case, I'd better leave on the earliest flight out."

"There's a shuttle leaving this evening."

"Then I'd better say my goodbyes and start packing, just after I finished unpacking, too." She embraced Bill and shook hands with the rest. "Take care of yourself, William. Thank you all." She left the room, trailing her retinue. Sahsha escorted her out.

As the door hissed close, Bill sighed and sat down heavily. "We did it."

"Do you think she'll do what she promised, Bill?"

"You don't know the Secretary-General, Commander," Marc said. "When she says she’ll do something, she will."

"Is it really as bad as you say?" Phil asked.

"No, not that bad. It'll probably be a few years, ten at the latest, before we get affected by anything happening out there."

"What worries me," said Marc, "is that the estimate used to be decades. Now it’s down to years."

"Yup. That's why we're doing everything we can now."

"The question is," said Walter, "is everything that we're doing enough?"

------

It was several weeks after that meeting. Little Davie was tugging a Miriam's pants leg. "Mommy, mommy," he said excitedly. He was pointing at the video screen. It was a live satellite feed of the latest U.N. conference that was just finishing up. Evidently he recognized his father among the people in the crowd.

"Hush, Davie," Miriam said. She was putting Peter, David's twin brother, gently to bed. He was innocently asleep.

The latest U.N. meeting, one of the very few closed-door sessions in recent years, was turning out to be a controversy. Rumors coming from all over the system, most especially from Triton, coupled with the Secretary-General's secrecy and the tight-lipped comments of Bill and the CETI council members, had resulted in a very wide media coverage of the whole affair. The latest word from the grapevine was that something bad had been intercepted from space, via Phase-Wave. There were whispered fears of invading Bug-Eyed Monsters and other equally improbable yarns circulating in some of the remote communities on the Earth and in the Outer Planets, but most of the populace pooh-poohed these as ridiculous and paranoid. Still, they were curious to know what was afoot.

The reporter from News Ten, the most notorious gossip network on the North American wavelengths, was just recapping these things, trying to make the static picture of the U.N. conference building and the milling crowd of delegates just leaving the General Assembly building interesting.

Finally, the focus of the picture changed and zoomed in on some of the delegates near a temporary stage and podium erected in the courtyard. The reporter changed his spiel as Secretary-General Romarkin came out of the building and walked to the podium.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the reporter said, "you are now seeing some of the system's political luminaries leaving the building after their no-doubt grueling session. In the lead is the secretary-general herself, Madam Alexandra Romarkin, and accompanying her is Doctor Marcus Bidwell, ambassador from Neptune and also a member of the CETI governing council, which, we believe, was instrumental in the conference. Sources say that the meeting has a bearing on the extra-terrestrial transmission the CETI council announced they will broadcast later today.

"The actual broadcast, details of which have yet to be disclosed, was approved by an international committee made up of various scientists and prominent laymen. This has actually caused an even larger issue than the mysterious joint session of the U.N. Later on our correspondent up in Triton Center will bring you the actual transmission."

The picture became a close-up of the secretary-general as she stepped up to the podium. The press was barely held back by the blue-uniformed U.N. guards surrounding her. Marc was still at her elbow, uncomfortable in the unaccustomed higher Earth gravity. Allie started her speech.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she said, her amplified voice reverberating between New York's tall structures, "people of the Solar System. This is a momentous day in the annals of human history." The crowd became silent.

"I and my fellow representatives of the many nations of this great race of ours have reached an accord that has far-reaching effects on our future and the future of our interstellar neighbors.

"Later today, in the moons of distant Neptune, a message will be sent to our neighbors, announcing our presence and thereby making us a part of this greater galactic community."

This was met with thunderous applause. The secretary-general waited a moment.

"It is our hope," she continued, "that this will herald the opening of new and better opportunities, as before undreamed of, for our race. It has been our dream to venture to new worlds and meet new people, perhaps to learn from them, perhaps just to come face to face with the other children of God. And now that dream will come true.

"We have already made the first few steps towards this goal. The CETI Council has given us proof of extra-terrestrial life, but as yet we have not been able to achieve two-way communication with them. But, even if that was possible, the other part of our dream will still remain unrealized.

"In our joint session, the U.N. has created a new council, to be composed of the brightest citizens of our race, whose sole objective is to study the possibilities of creating a way for us to bridge those uncounted number of light-years, to make it possible for us to travel those billions and billions of miles, to create a spacecraft that will be able to accomplish this feat, and perhaps bring us to those imagined worlds and come face to face with our interstellar neighbors."

Allie paused and surveyed the crowd.

"But recent data gathered by our CETI outposts have uncovered an ugly development." The people stirred nervously.

"We have found that this newly discovered community of races that we are, as yet, unacknowledged members of, is on the brink of war. It is only a matter of time before we become unwilling bystanders caught in the coming crossfire between the stars." Murmuring spread throughout the crowd.

"It is indeed painful to the heart to find the eve of battle so close to our doorstep when it is only now that we ourselves have achieved a measure of peace; to find our hard-won battle for order and prosperity, tempered by more than half a century of grief and bloodshed, threatened again.

"Those of us who represent your will in the assembly have also felt this pain. But we did not shirk our duty. We have resolved to meet this challenge with all the resources of the Human Race."

Some in the crowd applauded and murmured their agreement.

"To meet this challenge, we have resolved to unite our people's might to oppose this common menace, to create a unified Armed Force. Together with the newly created council, the people of the Solar System will soon become a force to be reckoned with in the galaxy." There were scattered cheering in the crowd though some frowned and shook their heads.

"Thus we have decided and done," Allie continued. “It is our fervent hope that the people unite their voices as one in support of this plan, that we, the members of the Human Race, may take our place in this new community of races with dignity and pride, unmolested and unscathed and unblemished in body and spirit."

Clapping and cheering greeted the end of the speech, though many were dubious of what the secretary-general said. The coming months would tell if the people would believe.

Anxious reporters pressed in to try and interview the secretary-general, but she was able to escape back into the building.

Miriam turned the volume down and faced Bill.

"That was pretty good," she said.

"Yes, it was," Bill said. He was standing by the living room doorway holding a plate of spaghetti, lifting a forkful into his mouth.

"That's not what I meant, you idiot," she said throwing a pillow from the couch she was on at him.

"Daddy, Daddy," David cried, upset that his father wasn't on the screen anymore.

"Cheer up, kid, your father's going to be home soon," Bill said as he set his plate on top of the video set. He wiped his lips of spaghetti sauce. "That reminds me, I have to be at the center in ..." he looked at his wrist, "thirty minutes." He kissed Miriam on the cheek and mussed Davie's still-sparse hair. "Thanks for the chow."

Miriam stood up. "So soon?"

"I really have to go. We'll be transmitting the broadcast soon and I've got a lot to do before then. I'm not even sure if the dumb transmitter will work." He stooped down and gave David a bear hug.

"See you later, champ."

Miriam slipped her arm around his and walked him to the door.

"Marc will be coming home,” she said, and left it hanging.

"I know. So?"

She didn't answer.

They'd been friends for a long time now, almost as long as Bill's been friends with Marc. As with close friends, they knew each other well, enough to be able to read each other's feelings.

Bill's question was more or less rhetorical. Their long friendship had been one long unrequited love affair. When they met, Miriam and Marc had long been married. Marc became one of Bill's closest friends, and Bill was greatly worried by his growing infatuation with Miriam. What's more, Miriam reciprocated his feelings. But, knowing Marc's old-fashioned ideals, Bill did his best not to let this relationship grow. Miriam sensed this and had acceded to Bill's decision. She loved Marc, after all, and was willing to do anything for him, and he for her, and she had long since tried to conform to her older husband's ideals.

But at times like this, she barely could.

"Will you be coming over to the Center later?" Bill asked, breaking the uneasy silence.

"Maybe," she said. "I just want to finish this program."

Bill was about to go out of the door but was stopped by Miriam's hand on his arm.

"Bill," she said.

"Yes?”

"I love you," she blurted out.

Bill paused. It was the first time she said it out in the open.

"I know," he said, softly. "And I love you. But what about Marc?"

"I love him, yes. But the problem is that I love you, too."

"We can't." He laid a finger across her lips. "Let it lie," he said. "Just let it lie." He hugged her and kissed her tenderly. Her eyes were bright with tears. "See you later, okay?"

She hung her head and nodded, closing the door ever so gently.

Bill stood outside in the hallway a moment, gazing reflectively, sadly, at the door until the fast tap-tap-tap of heels broke his reverie.

He glanced down the hall and saw Sahsha running toward him, looking winded.

"I knew I'd find you here," she said breathlessly. "We're about to start the broadcast and we need you there."

He smiled perfunctorily at her and allowed her to lead him to tube 017, one of many connecting the city to Triton Center. Sahsha frowned, picking up his preoccupied, worried and sad look. She glanced back at the apartment door, wondering what happened. She soon forgot this as Bill seemed to break out of his gloomy mood and started a conversation in his usual delightful and engaging manner. She sighed and slipped her arm through his and leaned on his shoulder.

The usual dull facade of Triton Center was changed. The flat, four-floor complex, with its many access tubes radiating out like the spokes on a great silver wheel was alight with large illuminating lamps that surrounded the base. The numerous Crystalline windows were alight, making the center look like some enormous, squat Christmas tree.

The large rectangular Phase-Wave antenna grid rose up from the middle of the complex, and tilted towards the sky. Unlike old cumbersome radio antennae, it was still not large nor tall enough to merit warning beacons; small winking navigation lights sufficed. But still it dominated the Triton skyline.

The light provided by the planet illuminated the base and showed the legend "CETI 05" painted on the antenna's grid. Today, the center was appropriately oriented to maximize the effectiveness of the transmission.

Most knew that this present position of the base and the orientation of the moon were very important for this particular project. Bill and his people took advantage of this transmission "window." This particular configuration of the moons and the planets, in relation to the target planets in the “Galactic Federation,” would only last a few hours, and the next time this happened would be hundreds of years in the future, so it had to be done right the first time.

Jerry was waiting on the fourth floor, in Triton Center's Main Mission control station. He looked out of the large panoramic Crystalline window. In the distance could be seen the three large complexes, outlined in their bright aurora of blinking lights. They were connected to the base and to each other by a latticework of bright and transparent Crystalline access tubes embedded in the rock and ice. If one looked down the window, one could see the center's own tube stations linking it to the others. Together, these comprised the Triton State, one of five in the United Satellites of Neptune, which was one of the most powerful nations of the Outer Worlds, second only to the moon.

Jerry looked down in time to see an incoming travel tube, its lights cutting a furrow in the jet-black night.

He turned around to face his people, busy with their jobs. He tapped the duty comm-officer's shoulder. "Have someone fetch Doctor Steele," he said. "He's coming through gate seventeen."

The officer nodded and turned back to her console and issued some orders.

A little later, Bill was able to get through the mob of reporters and newspeople with Sahsha in tow. The reporters stuck like glue and Bill was less than courteous when he started shoving people out of the way. The appearance of a security guard helped clear a path for them.

Ten minutes later, they were able to set foot on the control station deck. Bill sighed with relief and thanked the guard. The guard smiled, touched a casual hand to her cap and left.

A hand clapped him on the shoulder. "Bill," Walter said in relief, "Damned glad you got here in time. We're about to start and everything's set."

"Hello, Walt," Bill replied. "Is the tape finished?"

"Just about," he said, leading them to the Main Mission proper, the nerve center of the whole base.

Hearing them, Jerry turned around from his console and smiled in greeting. "Oh, Bill, Sahsha, glad you're on time."

Bill glanced up at the status boards to find out what was happening. He looked at the main view screen. On it was himself giving the opening speech that he had taped earlier so that he would not have to do it live in front of the entire human race. Immediately after would follow the actual Transmission.

"Is that the media hookup?" Bill asked, pointing to the screen.

"Yes, it is. What the system is getting: Bill Steele, almost live, straight into two billion homes."

"Ha ha, very funny," he said sarcastically. "Why is the antenna out of alignment?"

"Something Phil's cooked up. You'll see."

"But the..."

"Wait and see," Jerry said, cutting him off. "Don't worry. Trust me."

"If we go off schedule and miss the corridor..."

"No, we won't. Trust me."

Bill sighed. "All right, on your head be it." He punched up status on a terminal. "Where's Phil now?"

"Navigation. Riding herd on that nightmare you insist on calling a transmitter. He'll be up later, after the Transmission. Assuming there's ever going to be a transmission."

Bill gave him a sour look.

"Attention, attention," a loudspeaker boomed, "Transmission will commence in T minus one minute. All personnel to duty stations."

At the sound of the speaker, all the workers looked up from whatever they were doing and looked to the view screen. On it, Bill's pre-taped message was just winding down. The room became quiet, save for the clicks and whirs of the machines.

Everyone was waiting, waiting.

"This is it," Bill whispered.

"This is it," Phil said, an unconscious echo. "Okay, gang, it's our show, now. Everybody stay on your toes.” Various "Yeahs" and "Rights" echoed among the people of Navigation Station.

"Lock the board at T minus thirty and get ready on the gyros," Phil said to the main operator, "and have someone crack another tank into the core; temperature's going up again." A trainee ran up the tunnel-like access tube and unscrewed the top of a nitrogen tank, letting the liquid gas pour directly into the transmitter core.

Someone punched up status on his board and a countdown lit up Phil's small screen.

"Cross your fingers," she said.

When the count hit thirty, the whole board lit up like a Christmas tree.

"Okay, people," Phil said, "we're live. Hit the mains. Put us on line."

A meter climbed up from zero to one hundred. "We're on a hundred percent, now," the main operator said to Phil.

"Good. Feed power into the gyros."

"Right."

"Activate."

The massive flywheels and gears that moved the great antenna went into action. At the push of a button, antenna oh-five started turning, ponderously aligning itself to a position painstakingly computed and pre-set weeks ago.

Up in main mission, the main view screen had cut to a shot of the antenna as it majestically swiveled on its axis. Bill now knew why Phil had mis-aligned the antenna: As the large metal plate swung around, it eclipsed some of the bright unblinking stars of Triton's sky, while revealing others. The ever-present mist of the moon draped away from the antenna, making glowing, iridescent trails in the starlit night, like wisps of clouds on distant Earth. It was beautiful.

The people watched awed, mesmerized by the image on the screen.

The antenna stopped swiveling and tilted its great mast heavenward, slowly, ever so slowly. And stopped.

A buzzer sounded, signifying that all were in readiness: the antenna was set, power was up, the video file was ready, and, more importantly, the transmission "window" was open.

Bill whispered, "Now," and brought down his finger that was poised over the transmission switch.

As the button clicked home, Earth's first interstellar message flew across the void.

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About the author

Bobbi-C

  • Washington DC
  • Mistress of Confusion

Bio: Bobbi Cabot is a transgender girl in her thirties (35 y.o. as of 2016), who transitioned in 2005. She is known as "Roberta J. Cabot," "Bobbie-C," "Bobbie," "Bobbi" and "Bobbi-C" in the sites where she posts her stories.

Though not a professional writer, Bobbi is under the delusion that she writes passably well and indulges this delusion by sometimes posting stories, which is, thankfully, very seldom.

Bobbi's day job (the phrase "day job" is hereby stressed) involves being the big cheese of the overseas BPO practice of a Top 100 computer technology corporation.

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