EARTH, 2083 A.D.
When questioned in the days following the incident by police, and observed by men in dark suits who said nothing at all, those who knew Howard DeWitt tactfully admitted that he was a quiet man who kept to himself since his divorce; although, when the suits disappeared, several people, under conditions of anonymity, changed their account to describe him as "an overbearing, condescending jerkweed." In truth, if he had a singular flaw, it was that he perceived his own cleverness to be equally matched by his brilliant intellect, and a hubris that would not allow him to be persuaded otherwise. After all, he had been exceedingly careful, up until then, not to do anything that would cast even a hint of suspicion upon him. And even on the night of his death, the way he yanked up the collar of his overcoat and scrunched into it like a turtle would have been seen as natural, for the gale winds and rain cascading slantwise in surging waves across the rows of slickened parked cars presented a daunting gauntlet to run.
His eyes darted over the lit parking lot, once, twice, finally, a third time. He gripped his collar with one hand so that it nearly completely covered his face before dashing out from the overhang. The rain hammered at him and the dampness penetrated the crevices where the coat bunched against his skin, saturating him in the short time it took to slip across from the building’s exit – to the darkened street – to the relative shelter of the communication terminal on the other side. A glass and plexi partition, its sides lined with active noise dampers, afforded some measure of privacy from the other booths; the ’omelet maker,’ the name given to the many-tentacled device straddling the enclosure, ensured that every transmission was sufficiently shrouded in unbreakable encryption and scrambled from signal interception technologies. Despite the hour, he was surprised, pleasantly, to find it deserted. Of course, that was why this forgotten, derelict area in the warehouse district had been chosen as the site for the Project in the first place. He ran his fingers through soggy hair and placed his palm over the infra-red scanner, whispering the number he had committed to memory.
It was answered immediately. "Yes?"
It was impossible to determine from the detached tone of the speaker whether a man or a woman was on the other end. Nevertheless, he was fairly certain it was always the same person to whom he spoke.
"We’ve discovered Eden."
There was a pause. "Where are you?"
"Never mind. Did you hear what I said?"
"Where are you?" the question was repeated.
"At a booth. Across the street from the Center."
"You should not have called us from there," the voice admonished.
"Well, I couldn’t call you on my cell. Besides, you’ve assured me your end of the call is secure."
"This was not the arranged time. Will your absence be noticed?"
"By them? Hardly. Most of them are drunk. They’ve been celebrating for the last hour. I’m safe."
"Don’t worry, I’ll come up with an excuse if I need one. But since we don’t have much time, I’ll get right down to business."
The voice clucked, "The terms of your payment have already been negotiated."
"It’s not enough."
"We have been more than generous for your services."
"Yeah, well, this is big. When word gets out there’s going to be much tighter security, much higher scrutiny of public records."
"Do not concern yourself. We have handled such things before."
"That’s what you say, but I’m the one sticking my neck out."
"What is it you want?"
"Triple. And not a wire this time. If you’re not interested, I can find others…" Seconds ticked by. His smug bravado melted with each moment of silence and a damp shiver ran down his spine, between his shoulders. "Are you still there?"
"I was relaying your request to my superiors."
"And?" he asked, cursing himself for the eagerness that crept into his voice.
"You are certain you can deliver the data?"
Another silence. "I have been instructed to tell you to remain where you are. A courier is being dispatched."
His brow furrowed. "Now? Here?"
DeWitt craned his neck, surveying the street and darkened buildings. A couple taxis cruised by. He felt exposed, a lone figure standing by the COM terminals in the middle of the night. "How long?" he asked.
"Not long. Ten, maybe twelve minutes."
"Alright. Then what?"
"The courier will provide you with instructions. Goodbye."
"Wait..." The line went dead. Crap. There was no point in dialing again. There would be no answer this time, he was certain. He considered, mouth curling in half a frown. He’d never actually met with a courier before. The only direct communication he’d had was the voice on the phone. Always he’d receive directives to drop the data at a specified location: under a bench or indiscriminately on a window ledge, even in an out of service W2E converter that had long since been disconnected from the metro power grid. Then, in a couple of days, the money would turn up in his ex-mother-in-law’s account. She was senile and wouldn’t know if she’d pissed herself, much less notice that half a million credits had been deposited in her name. His ex-wife didn’t know about the account or she’d have taken the money herself and asked no questions, the scheming bitch. Given the chance, she’d drain him dry.
He stood where he’d been told, eyes roving up and down the street for any sign of the person who was going to be delivering what could very well be his last payment. Of course, once he’d made one copy of the data, it would be simple to make another. He contemplated it, hands thrust into the recesses of his overcoat. He wrinkled his nose. Despite the rain, the air reeked with a noisome, chemical smell. Yet another reason to get himself off the Project and find another job, preferably in a better location with better pay.
Another taxi drove by, electric engine humming. It slowed. The ghost of a face peered through the plexi window, the driver hoping to pick up a quick fare. When he made no effort to hail the cab, it sped up again, disappearing around the corner.
How many minutes has it been? Nine? Ten? He wasn’t planning on being away this long. If he didn’t get back to the office someone might discover he was nowhere in the building. Excuses would need to be made. Just then, headlights came careening up the road. The car’s engine had a noisier pitch to it that he was familiar with, fuller, throatier. He couldn’t be certain of the make or model, but it was definitely an ElectroSport coupe of some kind. Expensive. He himself had owned several in the past. This had to be the courier.
He’d taken only a single step toward the curb when he heard the unmistakable sound of laughter and saw the skinny, waving arms of a boy as he leaned halfway out of the window despite the pelting rain. He frowned. Just some damn kids playing around in Daddy’s car. A wind-gusted piece of trash thumped against his leg and he shook it off with irritation, scowling at the dark splotch it made on his tailored pants. Disdain mixing with impatience, he stepped back into the shelter of the terminal. The car zig-zagged wildly up the street, crossing over into the other lane and veering back again. The cold rain hitting the warm ground produced a mist that distorted the twin beams of light into living things, writhing in parallel unison. The adolescent driver opened up the throttle, the whine of the engine buzzing, the sports car soaring two feet above the ground, propelled by an invisible field of electromagnetic wings.
At that moment, the sound of another engine caught his ears. He turned his head just as the massive behemoth loomed from the depths of inky darkness and into the small pool of diodic light that illuminated the terminal. Eyes wide, there was time only for a low moan to escape his lips, a feeble acceptance of the inevitable. Glass shattered and metal screeched as the six-ton ElectroFreighter, its headlights off, slammed into the booth where he stood. Without slowing, it continued down the street, taking the corner at break-neck speed. A horn blared from another vehicle, its driver angered by the truck’s illegal turn.
The vidport rang at 4:15 AM. Despite the ungodly hour, the man stumbled out of bed and lumbered to the adjoining room to answer it. Few people had access to his classified number, and most of those who did were not ones he could lightly ignore. Not without consequence, anyway. He pressed a button and the door slid closed with a muffled whoosh! Additional privacy was prudent, but in reality he didn’t want to disturb his wife. She could be trying even with a full night’s rest, but she was downright insufferable when her sleep had been interrupted. Mahogany paneling hid thick walls of noise-dampening foam within. The private study had been painstakingly constructed to prevent eavesdropping, electronic or otherwise.
The man turned his attention to the vidport, catching a glimpse of his face in the mirror over the desk as he did so. The flashing red light highlighted his features, exaggerating the creases and lines in his face. What hair remained on his head stuck straight out like needles in a pincushion. I don’t need anyone seeing me like this. He flipped the switch for ’audio only’ with a flick of his wrist. The flashing red LED was replaced by a steady blue one. Groggy, he did not answer right away.
"Sir? Hello?" asked a tentative voice, one the man on the other end recognized immediately, even without the voice analyzer that displayed the speaker’s name on the text screen.
"It’s me, Sam. What’s so urgent that you needed to call me this early? And on Saturday, too."
"Sir, they’ve found it. I’ve seen the evidence myself."
"Found what, Commander?" the man asked, trying not to let the irritation he felt be apparent to the man on the other end. He ground his palms into his eyes, as though he could dispel the redness from them through sheer force.
"A habitable planet, sir. One of our probes was picked up by NASA. The SETI folks have been in my office for hours, chattering like a bunch of old ladies."
"In a galaxy called M51. I have to say, I’m pretty optimistic, Admiral. They’re insisting we put together an expedition at once."
"Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ve been down this road before."
"I know, but this one’s different. From what I’ve seen, there’s no doubt in my mind."
"There’d better not be. I’m not going to go in front of Congress and the President asking for a pot of gold for another fool’s errand."
"Understood, sir. But, there is one problem," hedged the junior officer.
"What is it?" the Admiral said, steeling himself for the worst.
"The Chinese and the Republic of India. They know. They’re clamoring for a joint international effort.
"What? How did they...? Well, fuck ’em," the Admiral said, fully awake now. "It doesn’t matter. If we found it, it’s ours by virtue of discovery."
"I’m afraid it’s not that simple, sir. Their embassies phoned the State Department more than an hour ago."
The Admiral swore. "Do we at least know how they found out so fast?"
"We’re not sure. We believe India discovered it through sophisticated signal interception technology. They’re ahead of us in that department."
"Jesus! Can’t we keep a secret secret anymore? What about the Chinese?"
"We’re pretty certain they had a mole in the EDEN Project."
"DeWitt. We know he placed a call from a public terminal the night of the discovery."
"Well, have you questioned him?"
"I’m afraid that’s not possible, sir."
"They found most of his body on Ridge Street. The rest was on Fifth. We believe it was a bad information exchange."
"Oh, God." The Admiral drew a hand slowly down his stubbly cheeks. "He always was a pompous asshole, but I never thought he’d...well..."
"It’s still conjecture at this point. They’ve just begun the investigation, but we can’t ignore the coincidence. NSA is having trouble tracing where the call went. In any event, the good news is we’re pretty sure they don’t know where the planet is, only that we’ve found it. Otherwise, it would be a race to see who gets there first, a race we’d probably lose. The Chinese make the best StarCruisers out there, you know. And the Indian military moonbase is equipped with several space freighters capable of making long-range flights."
"You’re right, Sam, you’re right. Maybe it’s for the best then. Any chance of spillage?"
"Of the coordinates? Unlikely. DeWitt didn’t have the information on him, though he’d managed to lift it directly from the probe’s CPU onto a portable drive. Only two others had direct access to the coordinates and they’ve been thoroughly screened and sequestered. For safe-keeping, the coordinates are being stored solely in the WELL."
"Good." The WELL was a maximum security computer database and the Admiral was fairly confident that its security level hadn’t been compromised by any foreign agencies. At least, not yet. "What else?"
Silence crackled over the audio line. "With all due respect, sir, I would prefer not to say over this communication."
"This is an encrypted frequency!"
"I understand, sir, but no system is totally secure. And given the sensitive nature of this information..." his voice trailed off.
The Admiral sighed. "Very well. I’ll be in the office as soon as I can. And then I expect a full briefing."
The Admiral made to get up, then plopped back in his chair. Jennings could be enthusiastic to the point of seeming over-eager, but he generally knew his stuff. "Why not? If he’s right, the occasion certainly calls for it," he said with a grin. With a conspiratorial glance at the door separating his sealed study from the bedroom, Admiral Martin Langolier swiped his thumb across the centimeter-long scanner. There was a soft click as the drawer unlocked. He reached into the very back and pulled out a thick cigar. He twirled it lovingly between his fingers. Holding it under his nose, he inhaled deeply, relishing the musky scent before snipping the end and lighting it with a lighter from the same hiding spot. It wasn’t one of the synthetic ones that were all you could get on the market these days, but a real tobacco-filled original, complete with cancer-causing tar and nicotine. Rank hath its privileges. Still, if his wife found out he’d have more grief to deal with than being set upon by a swarm of Congressional staffers. She’d enjoy telling his doctor, too. He groaned inwardly at the notion of having to endure another one of the physician’s lectures about diet and exercise.
The Admiral punched a button on the wall. A thin hiss from an overhead vent and the subtle smell of ozone assured him the odor from the illegal contraband was effectively being sanitized. Satisfied, he stretched back in his chair and puffed away. With a smug smile on his face, he wrapped his arms contentedly across his belly.
On the wall was a projection of the M51 galaxy. It was a spiral galaxy – coincidentally, the first spiral galaxy to ever be discovered, or so the Admiral was told, by an astronomer named Charles Messier in 1773. A second galaxy named NGC 5195 could be seen interacting with the M51. The outer regions of the two galaxies touched one another, like delicately woven cosmic fingers holding hands.
"So you see, sir," explained Commander Jennings, "The spectragraphs, the thermal images, the photonic measurements, all indicate a habitable planet."
The Commander used the device in his hand to zoom in on a specific star. Seven planets of varying size orbited the star. The fourth planet in the display window was highlighted and enlarged multiple times with rainbow-colored thermal graphs. The exact meaning behind these lines and colors was not apparent to the Admiral; for that, he relied on the scientific analyses of his staff. And Jennings, his Chief Science and Technology Officer.
Admiral Langolier leaned back in his faux leather executive chair, his thick fingers clasped behind his head. The synthetic material crinkled as he shifted his weight one buttock at a time. The chronograph on the wall showed just past six o’clock in the morning.
"What about life-forms?"
"The scientists aren’t sure. The data so far are inconclusive. But before the probe passed out of range, the sensors detected unusual readings dotted over the equatorial region of the surface that could indicate a planned energy distribution grid. It might possibly be a dense band of high gamma-level radiation, but another field surrounds the entire planet about two hundred miles into the atmosphere which the sensors had difficulty penetrating beyond superficial measurements. The field’s uniform intensity has the scientists puzzled."
"Hmm, that could suggest a highly advanced species."
"Or it could just be some type of natural phenomenon. It’s not clear. After all, the M51 galaxy is over thirty million light years away. Ordinarily, light traveling from a star system just one million light years away means any information we receive would be one million years in the past. Geologically speaking, that may not sound like much, but on an evolutionary scale a lot can happen in that time."
Admiral Langolier grunted and waved the back of his hand. "I understand that. That’s why we sent out hundreds of those damn probes decades ago."
"Correct, sir. The quantum tunneling technology the probes use is outdated by today’s standards, but they have proven reliable in gathering the data on planetary bodies from distant galaxies that we needed. The first wave of them has been returning from their pre-programmed orbits within the last fifteen years, with more coming every few months."
"So how trustworthy is the data?"
"The probe came within a few thousand light years, so the analysis is credible."
"Even so, it’s not impossible for a technologically advanced species to have evolved."
"There is always that possibility."
The Admiral leaned forward across his desk, steepling his fingers. His words were slow and measured. "The importance of this discovery is vital to the interests of the American people. I want to be clear, Commander. You may have already heard some of the top level chatter about recalling settlers from the Moon Colonies, not that it’ll ever happen. Where would we put them? Here?" The Admiral snorted. "No. We’ve got our own resource issues. The factories can’t keep up with the demand. Too much time and money has been invested in the Project. If this doesn’t pan out, it’ll make the whole affair seem like a monumental failure. A stick up our asses and us waving it about. But if something drastic isn’t done soon, especially after the Mars Holocaust..."
"Yes, sir. I understand completely."
The Admiral sat back again, rocking. "Good. Now, tell me about the climate and such."
Sam cleared his throat. "The planet has two moons sharing a common orbit, which is really its most obvious distinction from Earth as we can determine based on the data. Its location from the nearest star is comparable to our own, and that star is very much like ours in size and radiation. At just over ninety million miles it’s reasonable to assume the planet’s climate would be within the ’go zone.’ It has a less elliptical orbit than ours, but revolves more slowly resulting in an extended calendar year. I believe the scientists estimated one full revolution to be the equivalent of three hundred and seventy to three hundred and eighty of our days. They’ve even determined it has a north-south pole like ours, suggesting it is geologically active with a molten core. Who knows what elements might be buried beneath its crust? ExxEon and TerraGroup, Ltd., and who knows how many other megacorporations, will be very excited about the prospects of new natural resources."
"You bet your ass they will be! But they better keep their grubby hands to themselves. This is a Government funded expedition. There’ll be plenty of opportunity later for those vultures to move in."
"Yes, sir, but their lobbyists are sure to place heavy pressure on Congress."
"Let them try. Even the dirtiest politician on the Hill would loathe making concessions to the corporate sector until we know exactly what we’re dealing with. They won’t make any back-room deals until they’ve seen the booty."
"They may try another tack. Sending someone to represent their interests…"
"Forget it. I still have a few high-placed favors to cash. Every member of the U.S. team is strictly going to be on Uncle Sam’s payroll, and I’ll personally blacklist any international members that aren’t on the up-and-up."
"You may have the mission’s best intentions at heart, sir, but you can be sure big businesses will be relentless. Once the identities of the team members become public knowledge...well. Any advance information would give a corporation a supreme advantage over its competitors. Trillions of trillions in potential profits will be at stake. Can you vouch for the character of all those individuals?"
The Admiral made no reply. No, but for the man I plan to put in charge of this insanity...yes. Yes, I can.