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Year One, January:
Things that go bump in the night...
[In The Beginning]

11:00 PM, January 4th

    The Hubble Space Telescope orbits innocently, never knowing what is about to hit it. At eleven PM on January 4th, Hubble's onboard computers suddenly refuse all official incoming commands and begin the laborious processes of slewing the telescope around to point in a new direction- without being told to do so by Ground Control.
    "Damn," mutters one of the Grad students that mans the Hubble control room on the ground below. He slaps the computer monitor absent-mindedly, as if that will change what the screen display is telling him. The springs on his desk chair squeak alarmingly as he leans back in annoyance.
    "George?" the student's supervisor asks. "What is it?"
    "Dunno, Dave," George replies.  "This thing says the 'scope is redirecting on schedule after that last data dump ended, but its going the wrong way. Its gonna re-focus on the asteroid belt somewhere, if I read these numbers right. 78 degrees off of where we're telling it to point."
     "Ratty data?" Dave asks.  George shakes his head.
     "Don't think so. Something has glitched, and glitched bad."
    "If some stupid programmer reversed a plus sign for a minus sign-" Dave's blood pressure begins to climb. "Run a diagnostic, and get me a copy of the re-direct programming patch for this session."
    "Sure thing," George says.  "Here's the hard copy.  I'll run the diagnostic on the ground computers right now."
    "Thanks. Or maybe no thanks," Dave says.  "Hubble's not officially in orbit anymore, remember?  If it's glitched up and starts to come down."  Dave rubbed his eyes.  "I've got to go call this in.  If this gets out..."  George shrugged as if waiting for Dave to finish.  "Well, you can kiss your assistantship goodbye for one!"
    "Dave?" George swiveled his chair to call to his supervisor's back as Dave opened his office door. Dave turned around to face George's monitor station.
    "Yeah, George?"
    "Dave, what if the problem isn't on the ground?"
    "Then we're screwed, George. Congress will shit-can us and de-orbit the Hubble after all. We only saved it last time by the skin of our teeth and some lucky donations and some discretion. You ever see a satellite fall? Its an ugly sight. Especially knowing you could still use the bugger if Congress would just get off their butts and give up a little more money. Tell you what, call Juan and Dixie- over at Maintenance. Tell them what's going on and to come on over. We can get them to troubleshoot the hardware- Run a check for some kind of signal interference that might be masking our uplink commands, too. They can get motivated enough to get over here while I make the call to report in. Then we'll put 'em to work on the glitch and see what turns up."
    "I'm on it," George replies as he picks up the phone. "But they aren't gonna be happy about being woken up..."


    Meanwhile, on the Internet a computer virus attack begins to sweep the globe. In waves, home computers the world over become sluggish, refuse to accept input, or lock up completely. Curiously, not a single computer in a hospital or police station is stricken. The virus also seems to avoid utility companies and airport computer networks. No railway computers or highway traffic computers are affected. Acting like spyware, the virus tends to operate during whatever idle time the infected computers have. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are inconvenienced briefly as the virus seizes their computer, uses it for a few moments, and then moves on to the next conquest. Few people will ever realize the true magnitude of that first attack.
    In control rooms on the ground, operators of the Very Large Array and the Aricebo Radio Telescope dish are startled to find that their instruments now refuse to obey any of their commands. Likewise, there is unbridled panic in several unlisted control rooms across the globe when highly classified military spy satellites also refuse to obey their masters. Curses resound as their secret weapons rotate to point in the wrong direction. Further curses ring out when the satellites begin to study an area of outer space rather than the nations of Earth that their owners considered enemies.
    Optical and radio telescopes around the globe are systematically hijacked by way of their computer control systems. All of them begin to focus on a specific area between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers work frantically at regaining control of their instruments. So do the militaries of many nations as more and more spy satellites succumb to the same rogue computer program. Many of the computers that are stricken are not connected to the Internet, and never had been. It seems to make no difference at all.
    Somehow, it spreads. It spreads almost instantly. It spreads almost everywhere. But it is very selective.
    Hours pass. Data comes streaming back from the telescopes. This fact particularly upsets the owners of the hijacked spy satellites. Their classified instruments are reporting to the virus instead of themselves. The hijacked computers process the incoming data for nearly twelve hours before the secret control rooms simultaneously light up their respective monitor screens with a video display. The governments of the world watch on secure, secret channels as the first pictures of the previously undetected object are recorded by the hijacked telescopes, transmitting live. The live images are replaced every quarter hour with an animation showing the object nearing, then striking Earth. The virus is trying to drive it's point home to all of the world's governments at the same time.

"36 Months, 25 Days, 17 Hours, 39 Minutes, 44 Seconds until impact"

The Coming of Cthulu    It is big. It is headed straight for us. And if we don't do something quick, it is going to be doomsday for the human race. As well as for everything else that had evolved beyond bacteria. There is no way to escape. There is no hope of survival.
    Earth has been given warning. Within thirty seven months, dinosaurs aren't the only things that are going to be extinct around here.
    Meanwhile, the people of planet Earth's various countries eventually go back to their daily routines as the virus attack seems to subside. News of the Near Earth Object's approach is successfully suppressed by the UN, US, EU, Russia, China, Japan, and other national governments. The bureaucrats of the world then do what they do best: procrastinate, debate, and waste time. Most of them, anyway. Some begin to prepare plans for planetary defense, even when they have to do so in secret. When the upcoming doomsday is mentioned by those in the know, "The sky is falling..." is their password. For others; life goes on, ignorance is bliss, and the sudden doom from the skies is being targeted by every spin-doctor on the planet in order to keep it that way. For yet others, there will be other
tasks. Trials before the storm.
    Time passes, as it so often does. But eventually, time runs out. It isn't called a Deadline for nothing.

Nightwatch: Fly By Wire

By Dan L. Hollifield

Nightwatch created by Jeff Williams -- Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moriyama
       What was concealed
        Shall stand revealed
        In all its radiant glory.
        Those secrets held
        Shall be unveiled
   And thereby hangs this story...

Year One
The Events of:
"Dragon's Egg"    [Late January]

"Alconost"             [Late March]

"Rogue Harvest"               [May]

"Dimensions' Gate"      [August]

"Cardenio"              [September]

Year One,
Sultans of Swing
Space Is Deep]

6:52 AM, September 27th


By William Robert England, Senior Science Writer, posted: 27 September, 7 a.m. ET

The third largest asteroid ever known to pass near Earth will be making a close celestial brush with the planet year-after next in an event that professional and backyard astronomers are watching closely. The space rock, named Cthulu, will not hit Earth, despite rumors of possible doom that have circulated the Internet for months. Humanity is very fortunate there won't be an impact, as the asteroid is large enough to cause global devastation.
Cthulu is about 29 miles long and 15 miles wide (46 by 24 kilometers). On Wednesday, Jan. 29 two years from now it will be within a million miles of Earth, or about four times the distance to the Moon.

No space rock this big will pass so close in the next century, scientists say. And while similarly large asteroids have hit the planet in the distant past, none so big have come so close since astronomers have had the means to notice them. Many smaller space rocks have been spotted much closer, even inside the orbit of the Moon. NASA scientists and other asteroid experts have been watching
Cthulu for many months, and though its orbit will change slightly with each trip around the Sun, they have a good handle on the path.

The position of the asteroid on this pass is known to a precision roughly equal to the rock's size, said Allan Horne, a senior research scientist at the North American Space Science Institute. That leaves a little wiggle room for its exact location at closest approach, but not much. "Because of the nature of the orbit, we cannot predict thousands of years into the future for this object, but in anyone's lifetime now, there is no chance" of an impact, Horne told


Cthulu will not be visible to the unaided eye. Experienced telescope users can see it now from the Southern Hemisphere, and in early October of next year it will be visible from the north. Finding Cthulu will be challenging, Horne said, due to a combination of the asteroid's position in the sky and interfering moonlight.
Because the asteroid is so close, its location in the sky will vary significantly for skywatchers in different places on Earth at any given moment. And because it moves quickly, the location changes constantly. Printed sky maps struggle to provide enough detail to be useful.

"In a large telescope the motion would be perceptible against any stars in the field more or less in real time, sort of like watching the minute hand on a clock," Horne said, adding that the movement would be "not quite that fast, but noticeable."

Highly experienced observers will use complex plotting information known as ephemeris data. Others can use software programs that generate maps for specific times and locations.

When, where and how

At its closest in 28 months from now, on Jan. 29,
Cthulu will be visible only to observers in the Northern Hemisphere. Large and steady binoculars will be able to pick out the pinprick of sunlight reflecting off the asteroid, providing observers "use a good program like Starry Night Pro© to plot its incredibly rapid motion across the sky," said Omar Neismith of the North Dakota Sky Observatory. (The software company Starry Night© is owned by Imaginova©, parent also of© and is in no way connected to
Soon thereafter, experienced backyard astronomers north of the equator will have a chance to find

"By early October of next year, it will suddenly be re-emerging into northern skies as its apparent trajectory will bring it back into very favorable view," Neismith said in an e-mail interview. But by then the asteroid will be moving toward Earth and getting brighter. It will quickly become "very difficult" to miss even with a small telescope, he said.
Both Neismith and Horne photographed the giant space rock last week (it was visible then in the south as it moved across telescope viewfinders in Australia, Indonesia, Southern Africa, and South America)and said exposures longer than thirty seconds showed a definite trail as the giant rock moved slightly against the background of stars.
"It has been quite a wonderful show so far," Horne said. "I look forward to the show getting better as time passes."

Strange rock indeed

Cthulu was discovered in early January. Scientists have modeled its strange rotation and odd shape -- it looks something like a pockmarked pear -- from data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as many other observatories. Instead of a fixed north pole, Cthulu's axis of rotation wanders in two separate cycles of 5.4 and 7.3 Earth-days. So while most asteroids rotate somewhat like a football thrown in a perfect spiral, "Cthulu tumbles like a flubbed pass," says Scott Engin of Tennessee State University.
Astronomers will use this current flyby to examine
Cthulu in greater detail, with a goal of pinning down the rock's rate of spin and better estimating its future path.

While some rumors have suggested the asteroid's forecast course might be off by enough to cause a collision with Earth, Horne agrees with Neismith and other scientists that there is no chance for calamity. Neismith has been monitoring
Cthulu's movement since January 4th, logging more than 500 observations that allow mapping of a precise trajectory. "Although the actual path of it has indeed varied a slight bit from the original calculated orbit, there is absolutely no chance of a physical encounter or impact with Earth," he said. "Despite the current world-wide computer and radio problems caused by an unexpected peak in sunspots, we have every confidence in our orbital predictions. There is no cause for alarm, but everyone will be in for a wonderful light-show as dust from the asteroid's path intersects Earth's orbit."


Year One, October:
The Events of:
"Ghost Rockets of Sweden"

8:05 AM, October 22nd


Year One,
Frankenstein Unleashed
[Back In Black]

3:52 AM, November 3rd

   The virus comes back, with a vengeance.

"You are wasting time.
If all is revealed to the public, thousands will die in the panic.
If nothing is done, all
will die.
The possibility yet exists for Humanity to save itself.
Choose wisely...

24 Months, 20 Days, 7 Hours, 32 Minutes, 14 Seconds until impact

    So came the message to the many secret terminals that all governments seem to have hidden away somewhere... The implication is clear. Start making plans to save the Earth, or the virus will reveal the truth to everyone.

    Once again, the supervirus strikes- bulling its way through all computer defenses. The stricken computers begin running a freeware astronomy program in a small window hidden in the background of their monitors . Half the Internet becomes a number-crunching network for the data being delivered from the hijacked telescopes and satellites. It doesn't take much imagination to realize that the computer virus is once again the telescope hijacker. It must be controlling the various telescopes with the pirated home computers. Whenever they are connected to the Internet they begin to lock up, freeze up, ignore all keyboard commands or mouse clicks for minutes at a time. Then, the virus releases them to move on to other computers. But it always returns.

    Pressure is being applied to the governments of Planet Earth. And when enough pressure is applied to something, it either bends or breaks.

    The virus is almost out in the open now, forcing the hands of various governments to restore the peace. And to spin their actions over the last year. Some of that spin is directed at minimizing the public access to the true extent of the danger. Various astronomers whose telescopes and satellites have been hijacked issue reports that border on science fiction rather than fact. They are already on the inside, and have been coached what to say. Pundits announce that "everything is under control" and that "measures are being taken to minimize future risks" and other meaningless jargon. All the official activity is passed off as preparing for a worst case scenario that "couldn't happen in a million years." People react oddly, though, when the initial scare emerges, and some strange things happen even after the spin doctors convince the public that nothing is wrong.-  Churches of every religion the world over gain a record number of new members, small riots are stopped by armed neighbors working together, and several petty dictators find themselves overthrown in popular uprisings. Meanwhile, unnoticed on a large scale, factories the world over receive computer-generated e-mail orders for new products. Several companies shift production of new, mysterious projects into high gear. The stock market rises and falls like an amusement park ride... But eventually, people learn to cope. Ignorance, however involuntary, is still bliss.

Year One, November:
Lies, Lies, Lies...
[Spin Doctors]

8:29 AM, November 4th

Record year for Sunspots
International Inquisitor
Science Writer: Fred Bardo
Paris Telecommunication Convention:
Fierce magnetic storms once again plague the Northeastern US and Canada
causing disturbances in communication, computer networks, and electrical
power grids. For the second time this year, significant portions of the
Internet are temporarily blocked off. Telecom officials have requested
that only emergency messages be sent at this time. "Just wait it out,"
says the telecom industries spokesman, Josh Langston. "The solar storm
should be over in a few days. A week at the most. Until then, please
restrict your use of the telecom grid as much as possible. Thank you. I
know that if we all work together, we can solve this problem in record
time." The meeting of telecom industry execs in Paris has been ongoing
for several days now. Discussions on how to shield modern electronic
equipment against this kind of magnetic storm interference in the future
continue unabated. Reports have been positive so far, and promise to
add new jobs to the workforce as new technologies are developed.

Year One, November:
Somebody's Watching Me
[Secret Treaties]
10:07 AM, November 6th

    "You're telling me that the computer virus is monitoring your e-mail and sent you these books?" Simon Litchfield asked. "Callow, that is a level of paranoia that I'd of thought even you were too stable to achieve."
     Simon and Callow sat in the Popular Culture section of the Nightwatch Institutes's library. Callow sat facing a pile of books, technical reports, biographies, pulp fiction novels, and piles of paperwork printouts detailing research papers on the problem of an asteroid impact. Callow looked upon the stacks of paperwork in much the same manner that anyone would be expected to look at a similar pile of rapidly decaying rodent droppings. Simon had to stifle a chuckle at Callow's expression as he went on. "Half the computers on the Internet are infected by this supervirus, most of the major telescopes and spy satellites the world over have been pirated by same, and the upshot of it is- that our planet's various governments have wasted a year's warning of a major asteroid strike.The end of the world as we know it. And you think that there is something strange going on with your your e-mail?"
     "It isn't funny, Simon. I sent a message to my secretary asking for information on deflecting or minimizing asteroid impacts. On a secure channel, mind you. Ten minutes later, an assistant librarian wheels a trolley over and dumps this lot off."
     "And the librarian said?"
     "Simon," Callow spoke, "she said that the staff had been scrambling for the last seventeen hours to gather the items given to them on a computer generated list. Using my personal, secure account, I might add. Which means that seventeen hours before the thought occurred to me, the virus knew I'd be asking for this information. And knew my most secure account passwords. I don't like that sort of thing. I don't like it at all."
     "Callow..." Simon's voice began, then trailed off into introspective silence. The comforting scent of old books that permeated the library's rooms served as a counterpoint to the melody of Simon's interior monologue. "You know my attitude about this," Simon added after a moments pause. "I've always asked 'why' about this computer virus. Not 'who' or 'how', but 'why?' Why did it take over the Hubble telescope--which isn't even officially on orbit anymore, mind you--and Aricebo, and a score of other optical and radio telescopes? Not to mention a double-dozen top secret spysats from different countries? Why did it direct the world's attention on that little point out in space? Where we just happened to have been given the first sighting of the doomsday asteroid that's coming right own our throats? Who wrote the virus has become immaterial. How did he know? What did he know? When did he know it? Why did he choose this way of telling us what's going on?"
     "I am beginning to agree with you Simon, as much as it pains me to admit. But observe, study this pile of nonsense that the bloody bug has foisted off on me!"
     Simon looked as requested, and observed several studies of the Tunguska event, two of the better biographies of Nicola Tesla, a rare vintage copy of "Tom Swift and the Captive Planetoid" which he remembered as a pulp novel from his childhood. If only Doc Savage were here- or Superman, Simon thought, laughing to himself. A second glance took in several cometary atlases, a Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle novel about a cometary impact, a number of Civil Defense study folders, a copy of the Necronomicon, a stack of comic books, a Jules Verne novel, and something that looked suspiciously like a report on the readiness of NATO's nuclear weapons arsenals. At least, from Simon's point of view, looking at the documents upside down.
     "Callow," Simon asked cautiously, "Are you trying to tell me that we've been called in to consult on this? Openly? No breaking and entering needed?"
     "Yes," Callow nodded. "At the express request of some of the UN and US government's pet think tanks. Swift Enterprises, the Quest Group, the Probe Agency, Hidalgo International Technologies, even the Banzai Institute asked for us to be included. We don't have to sneak into this one. We've been invited in to play. We will be coordinating everyone's research and making recommendations. The Japanese Space Sciences Agency and the British Quatermass Society were the only ones to howl about classified data. Those two aren't co-operating very well. And then there's-"
    "Don't tell me. Let me guess. The Pentagon's pet black-budget research center. Area 51, S-4, CRD- whatever they're calling it this week."
    "Right in one, Simon."
    "Set someone in place, just to keep an eye on them. And count the silverware before they leave."
    "How droll, Simon. The FBI drew that straw. We are to keep our hands off... For now."
    "Did you send duplicates of all this data the virus sent you to Stephanie?"
    "Of course," Callow replied. "Whom else do you think that I'd ask for answers?"
    Simon shrugged off the implied insult. "And her reply?"
    "She agreed with the think tanks. The US, EU, UN, and NATO military have had their heads up their collective arses all along. Furthermore, that the current plan of nuking the asteroid would result in greater harm to the planet than doing nothing would. The Military wants to blow the thing to bits. Stephanie states for the record that that would be simply exchanging a lethal bullet for a lethal shotgun blast."
     "I'm sure our delightful computer scientist supreme also included some reasons for her brash statement?"
     "Of course," Callow replied, "she believes that the object is a comet, not an asteroid. She believes that the object is too fragile to decelerate with A-Bombs and may be already fragmented. Blasting it with nuclear weapons would only create a cloud of debris that still hits Earth with the same force as a single object would. She's convinced that the virus has given us hints that the object is a comet instead of an asteroid. And further, that the object can be tied to the orbit of a specific comet- The same one that produced the Tunguska Event. That damn huge explosion in Siberia, back in 1908. Her findings check out with all our own experts- As well as a dozen other boffins, scattered across the globe." Callow strained a smile. "She's too much like you, sometimes.  A jack of all trades."
     "So if Stephanie is right, then NATO and the UN are wrong -and will kill even more innocent people than doing nothing would. What can I do to help her?"
     "For God's sake! -- Read some of this crap and figure out what the virus is trying to tell us!" Callow almost shouted his reply. "We've only got two years left!"

Year One, November:
The Events of:
The Orion Affair

10:16 PM, November 28th

Year Two,
Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen
[Storm Warning]
10:27 AM, January 6th

    "Stephanie," Simon said in a reasonable tone of voice. "I fear that there isn't time enough left. We've been called in too late."
    "Possibly not," Stephanie replied. "The think tanks that disagreed with the UN all started production on their own ideas early last year. Rather rebellious of them, but the planet was at stake. So there has been more done than you've been aware of."
    "We still have a chance then." Simon looked slightly less grim from that point on. "Enlighten me, Stephanie. What have those scamps been up to all this time?"
    "Well, I now have access to the project databases of almost all of our new partners. Quatermass and the JSSA still won't allow us access yet, but the most of the rest have been very helpful. Swift Enterprises is working on advanced engine designs and building the missiles to house them. They've been going full tilt for over eight months. Whatever we decide to launch, we won't want for launch vehicles. Swift's aim is to be ready to give us the means to reach the Object and hopefully to push it out of the impact course. They also have a side project to minimize some impact effects or fragments if we don't stop this thing. H.I.T. has offered to provide their offshore launch facility in the Gulf of Mexico, free of charge. Platforms, fuel, support... the works. They are also building more platforms. Construction has been going on twenty four-seven for the last nine months. Hildago is also paying for a lot of overtime at all of our new partner's factories and labs. Wealthy bunch, those HITmen."
    "What about the Quest Group?" Simon asked.
    "They are working on lasers and solar sails," Stephanie grinned. "They want to tow the Object off course using sunlight and some whopping big lasers. One of Hildalgo's subsidiaries, Mayfair Chemical Research, is fabricating carbon nanofiber lines for Quest's solar sail project. The sail material itself is being fabricated by an independent contractor that specializes in exotic fiberglass and carbon fiber composites."
    "Sounds like a match made in heaven," Simon said. "What else?"
    "The Probe Agency is working on guidance and other instrumentation for Swift's missiles as well as for Quest's sail. And the Banzai Institute has every spare student and research member working on intercept course calculations, course deflection calculations, and survival probabilities..."  Stephanie smiled.  "Amazing what they can get students to do under the guise of theoretical exercises! The rest of their staff have been running non-stop, high-level brainstorming sessions since the Object was spotted. Some of their blue-sky ideas are really out there."
    "And your assessment of their plans?" Simon asked.
    "They're working at cross purposes," Stephanie replied, frowning. "Look, Simon." She pulled up several computer graphics on the display screen in her office. "They each have their own idea of what to do- and each is working on their projects like a beehive in full production.They're all big enough to be able to contract jobs out to each other, but its nothing like a solid plan."
    "In other words, each company is working mainly on their own jigsaw puzzle, even if they do pass each other a puzzle piece now and then?"
    "Exactly," she said. "But the thing is, I don't think that any one of their plans is going to be enough. I've been thinking of asking the virus for better numbers on the Object-"
    Simon blinked, and an uncomfortable pause hung in the air"You what?"
    "Don't get shocked speechless, Simon. The program is there to help us."
    "That's rather anthropomorphic, Stephanie. But you know what? I agree with you. Whoever wrote this virus- and I've given up trying to figure out who they are -knew in advance that this thing was coming. And this supervirus was their way of trying to save the world. It has all the best observatories under thrall, as well as half the Internet, and not a soul has been harmed. Several thousands have been inconvenienced-"
    "But being made extinct by a cometary impact would be a bit more annoying, don't you think?" Stephanie interrupted.
    "Just a teency bit," Simon replied. "But we would have to ask the ghosts of reindeer killed in Tunguska in 1908 if we really wanted a definitive answer. Or an intelligent dinosaur from 65 million years ago, for that matter. You wouldn't happen to have a Ouija board in here, would you?"
    "I'd need one if I were going to have a sèance," Stephanie suddenly grinned. "But I prefer to pronounce it science. I ran a search of public records for 1800 through 1910 for possible sightings of what would become the Tunguska object. The virus pointed to it with that hand-annotated paperback it found on e-bay, and forwarded to Callow. I cross referenced the few hits on that database with the best Astronomy databases I could access or hack into. It was the Chinese astronomy database with six thousand years of observations that gave me the best clues. I don't think its an asteroid at all, Simon. Comet Enke comes closest of all the possible hits to being the parent object. I can state that with 99% certainty. The same dead comet that just might have gifted the world with the Tunguska Event, too. From all the data I've been able to scrounge from everywhere, what we're threatened by is a fragment of an old comet. Maybe even the core object itself. I'll stake my life on it!"
    "You have, Stephanie. We all have."
    "But the UN!" She practically shouted the words- spat them out in disgust. "The UN still wants to use the world's nuclear arsenals to blow it up!"
    "Indeed," said Callow unexpectedly. He'd walked into Stephanie's lab unnoticed by either Simon or herself. "That is exactly why I've come to you. I've been ordered to brief
Dr. MacMillian on your findings so she can speak to the Security Council in an attempt to dissuade them from this stupid path. I have only an hour to prepare for our flight to New York. How can I prepare her to convince them that simply blowing the object to bits is more dangerous than than doing nothing- letting it hit in one piece? Whether the thing is an asteroid or comet, blasting it is still a stupid idea."
    Stephanie went to a worktable that was stacked high with books, manuscripts, printouts, and lists. She pulled out a worn paperback novel that had been bookmarked in several places. Paper crinkled and crackled as the pile settled into a new metastable relationship. "Here," she said, handing the book to Callow. "Read this on the plane. Use your pre-flight hour to pack your toothbrush and your most somber suit, then read the parts I've bookmarked with post-it notes- and use what you need in your briefing.
Dr. MacMillian can crib from any of this for her speech. I've already secured the rights from the publisher."
    "I should quote from a pulp novel?" Callow's disdain was palpable. "To
Dr. MacMillian? For a speech to the UN Security Council?"
    "Callow?" Simon asked. "Has Stephanie ever tried to make a fool of you before?"
    "Thankfully, she has not." Callow replied, sighing.
    "Then kindly do her the favor of believing that she isn't now. I've read that book, remember? At your request, I might add. It is not a pulp novel. It is a carefully researched, scientifically accurate, best-seller listed, Science Fiction adventure novel. I couldn't put it down," Simon added. "If
Dr. MacMillian
just reads them the 'Hot Fudge Sundae' section, she might be able to get those boneheads to see sense. If that doesn't do it, we may have to infiltrate NATO and UNIT and disarm their nukes. China, too. That's more covert than I'm prepared to go, Callow."
    "So," Callow coldly replied. "If the UN screws up and we all die, at least your honor will be intact, 'eh Simon?"
    "If you put it that way Callow," Simon riposted. "It still doesn't wash. This is just another puzzle. We haven't found all the pieces yet, that's all."
    "I need more information," Stephanie added.
    "Ask the bloody virus," Callow said through clenched teeth as he stormed out with the paperback gripped tightly in one hand..
    "We intend to," Simon called to Callow's rapidly retreating back.
    "Exactly what I would have said," Stephanie's voice oozed with quiet irony. "So let's go ask the virus."

Year Two, January:
Strange Encounters
[Getting to know you, getting to know all about you...]

10:49 AM, January 6th

    "What do we do now? Burn incense and chant?" Simon asked humorously.
    "Better than the Ouija board. We go online," Stephanie replied. "And we join a chatroom. We need experts. And the virus hangs out there too."
    "The virus hangs out there?" Simon shook his head.  "The virus has one of those silly nicknames?"
    "Yes Simon, the virus hangs out in an Internet chatroom. Spooky, don't you think?"
    "Goodbye Kansas," Simon intoned as Stephanie sat down at her computer keyboard. "Hello Oz... It's been quite a while since I've been in a chatroom. Teleconferencing is similar, but..." Stephanie motioned for Simon to sit at the secondary workstation at the corner of her own desk. There was a duplicate keyboard and monitor there that was slaved to Stephanie's computer.
    "I'll start up the chat program on both computers, but you'll have to log in yourself if you want to have a voice in the bull-session," Stephanie briefed Simon on the upcoming ordeal. "Act naturally, but try to keep your sarcasm in check. Remember, these are some of the brightest minds on the planet, but some of them may seem a bit strange. A few have been awake for too long. Some of the others are just odd people. This chatroom has been running since the virus first struck. The Probe Agency started it up at the UN and Hildago's request. At first, only people with Top Secret clearances were invited in. But it has become a lot more open in the last few months. The virus saw to that. The people coming in there all want to save the world, but this is the Internet, so expect some dysfunctional types, OK?"
    "OK," Simon replied meekly as Stephanie typed rapidly on her keyboard. A login screen blossomed on the monitor in front if Simon and he filled in the brief bits of information requested. Once he clicked on the enter button, his monitor rapidly filled with a blank white screen, peppered with text comments. He was in the chatroom. Right away he saw that Stephanie was already connected as Stephanie11. His own nickname request had resulted in his being known as Simon42. He gathered that the numbers ought to represent the people trying to use the same name on the same chat network at the same time. But other than that, he was a bit lost. Text began scrolling down his screen as the conversation that Simon and Stephanie had entered in the middle continued unabated.

- Connected to:
- Message of the Day:
- Don't Panic!

- is a private IRC network for the serious
- discussion of how to avoid the coming doomsday. Brought
- to you by the Probe Agency, a grant from the MOBIL Corporation,
- and the number Pi.
- Please let other researchers
know about this service, and enjoy it
- yourselves.

- This IRC network is intended to provide a similar service to the
- scientific community as the various government military networks,
- but without the annoying need for Top Secret clearance, and the
- user-unfriendly user interface.  Thanks to Debbie Feng Le Olson for
- originally conceiving of a brainstorming space in IRC.
- If you have difficulty with this server, please contact Bob
- Dawg (
- Enjoy!
- --------------------------------------------------------------------
- This network does not allow connections from insecure SOCKS proxies. On
- connection, your machine will be scanned by once for
- the presence of an open SOCKS proxy: this is not a breakin attempt, merely
- a security precaution. Please see the Probe website for more details.
- (
End of /MOTD command.

Now chatting in #Planetary_Emergency: @Acid_Burn, @Atom_Ant, @Autologger, @BB, @Beefalo, @Catwoman_=^^=, @CrashOveride, @CrazyEddy, @Cthulu, @Davros, @Dexter, @DocHavoc, @Engen, @Foust, @Gunzilla, @HITman007, @Ivan, @Jarvis, @JessieQ, @JQ, @KingLog, @LouweWu, @M5, @MrWizzard, @NASA_Geek, @Nemo, @NORAD, @Orac, @Patch, @Q_Cubed, @RappinRodney, @Rimmer, @Sinderella, @TJ, @UncleChucky, @Vimminine, @Watcher1138, @X_Mark, @Yolanda, @Zardoz, @
Zod, AlacrityFitzhugh, Alice^±^Cooper, ArthurCClarke, Amanda, Astrogator, BadBob, Balrog23, Beaker, Beam, BR549, Brad, BrotherBear, Bubba, Candy, Cappy, Carol, Charlette, Charlie, Christy, Cooper, CountOlympus, Cowboy442, CptnScarlett, Crazy_Daisy, DangerMan, DangerMouse, DanN, DeepBoat, DellaSue, DeltaXi65, DoctorWhich, Dodd, Dorian, Donald, DrZin, Duke, dyost, E-Dude, El_Kabong, Elvis217, EmperorMing, Fancy_Dan, Fiber_Optik, Fitzroy, FleBozz, FranchescaDePergallo, Frankenfurter101, FreshPrints, Galactus12, Geoffrey, Gil, Glenn, Gnuman, Grayhunter, Gran, Green_Lantern9, Hamner7, HarryRed, HawkLord, Heep, Hiata, Hicks_DW, HobartFloyt, Hooperson, Hooterville, Howard, HPL, Infiltrator, InspectorGadget23, JADlite, Jaimie, Jane, Jewel_O_Denial, KAOS, Kalvan, KingCrimson, Krenon, LadyJane, LadyLuck, Leonard, Les, Liz, lonegunman, LongCoolWoman, LuckyDuck, Lyn, L_evator, McElroy, Meeks, Margalla, MentalCase, MickyDolentz, Miki, Milford, MissKitty, MrAllan, Mr_Rex, MrsHippy, MsBehavin, MsDirection, MsFortune, n, Nate, Neo001, Nesssus, NickE, NPollotta, Number_6, Omphalos, PattyVargas, PG17, PronQueen, Quarterflash, Queen_Mean, RacerX, Redflame, Raven, Rellhazer, Rheannon, Robert_M, RossM, SeanS, senax, Simon42, Snake, Snark, Sparky, Spryder, StElmo, Stephanie11, SteveS, T_Bolt, TC, TomDeitz, ToolMan116, Toymanator, T_Rex, TuesdayNext, tZarina, UncleJoe, Vash, Vila, Vince, VoodooQueen, Wishbone, Wormtongue, WonderMan, WTM, Xandrew, X_Man201, YawnDrey, YD038, Young_Gun, zaDept, Zorro

Stephanie11 has joined #Planetary_Emergency

Simon42 has joined #Planetary_Emergency

-ChanServ- [Welcome Message for #Planetary_Emergency] IRC Chat! Welcome! Please do make your selves comfortable and remember at all times, your fellow patrons are probably aliens or insane humans. Don't be shy, don't lurk when you come in, say hello. We might be looking at another screen or away from our computers right then. We'd hate to miss your visit. Please speak out, as we all should have a say in what we should do to save the world.

-ChanServ- [#Planetary_Emergency] Channel Topic set to: "Scotty! Beam us up, NOW!" by DangerMouse

Now chatting in #Planetary_Emergency:
@JQ: Going to order a Pizza, Dad. Want us to get two?
WonderMan: We're beating our heads against a wall here. BRB, going for coffee.
@MrWizzard: Make it two large Super-Specials please, Jon. Roger said he'd be by later. And thank you. How is Jessie?
Balrog23: I still say nuke it. What's a cloud of dust gonna do to us?
@JQ: She's putting the kids to bed. Surprised that you didn't hear them yelling all the way out to your end of the house. I guess your office is better insulated than mine, huh? She'll be online from her office later, after story time. BRB, phoning for pizzas. I'll bring one out to your office as soon as they get here...
@Catwoman_=^^=: Go read the Archives, Balrog! We've argued that one to death. Nuking it is pure suicide for the whole globe.
@MrWizzard: Agreed, Cat. What you're dealing with is mass in motion, not how hard something is.
Hamner7: The chunks still go splat on us just as hard. Like a shotgun blast instead of a single bullet.
Cowboy442: X # of tons of ice cream causes just as much damage as the same # of tons of rock. Dead is dead, you know? Larry and Jerry were right.
PronQueen: We can't shoot down a bullet with a bullet. Much less a shotgun blast with a bullet. Stop thinking with your tools, Balrog. LOL! Just because you have a hammer, don't mean every problem you get is going to be nail-shaped.
Balrog23: Point taken. I was wrong.
Cowboy442: We still go splat.
CptnScarlett: We still have questions about the Object. Is it one solid body or an aggregate of rocks and ice?
Hamner7: And is it already fragmented?
@Catwoman_=^^=: Blast that, and bye-bye Birdie.
@BB: What's needed is a bit different approach.
Stephanie11: Something more Zen?
@BB: Hello Stephanie. Welcome back. Hello Simon, nice to meet you..
Balrog23: Hello, Newbies.

    "Stephanie?" Simon asked aloud. "What's going on?"
    "We're lucky that a head honcho is here. We're being accepted quickly because I've talked with him before.He remembers me. Act natural. And less talking, more typing, right?
    "Right," Simon consented.

Simon42: Hello. Nice to meet you all.
@Catwoman_=^^=: Welcome Simon and Steff.
@MrWizzard: Greetings and salutations, Simon & Steph.
Stephanie11: Thanks Cat, Wizz, BB.
Stephanie11: Hello Balrog, Hamner, WM, Cowboy, PronQueen, CptnScarlett. Have we saved the world yet?
@TJ: Welcome back Steff. Missed you last week. Hugs!
@TJ: Hello Simon. Welcome to the emergency meeting.
Simon42: Stephanie?

    "You loathe being called Steff," Simon began.
    "This is the Internet, Simon. Some people type slowly and abbreviate far too much. Doesn't mean that they're rude, it just means that they think faster than they type. Oh, and before you ask, TJ's hug was just a friendly chatroom greeting."
    "I see. Who is-"
    "Shhh!" Stephanie hissed.

Stephanie11: Thank you TJ.
Simon42: Thanks for the welcome, everyone.
Stephanie11: Any new developments since I was last here?
@Orac: Plenty Steff, all confusion and debate. Welcome back. Missed you.
Balrog23: Lots of yakkin' but no actin'.
@TJ: SE is running all out. We're making rockets by the score. My thanks go out to the HITmen for donating the $$ for the extended OT for the factory crews.
@MrWizzard: Production on Quest's solar sail is ahead of schedule, but the Laser group has run into some roadblocks. HIT is sending a consultant tomorrow. Focusing on the sail without vaporizing it has become a concern. And rightly so at the close range we'll have to work. Our diffuser system is proving to be a bother... Either we make the diffusers work, or anchor the lasers further away.
@Catwoman_=^^=: You need Nicola Tesla's fabled "death ray" LOL!
@MrWizzard: I wish I had the designs, Cat! I truly do.With that kind of power, I could just vaporize the thing and be done with it. There wouldn't even be Balrog's "cloud of dust."
WonderMan: Back. Ahhh... JBM, the world's best coffee.
@Orac: "JBM" ???
@Catwoman_=^^=: Yeah, well. What was it anyway? A laser? Particle beam?
WonderMan: Jamaican Blue Mountain.
@MrWizzard: Given Tesla's history, I'd put my money on a particle beam of some kind rather than a laser. The man could talk to electrons, Cat. He was a real wizard.
Balrog23: The UN still wants to try to nuke the mother. If its such a bad idea, why are they going for it?
PG17: Who's Tesla? Should I know him? I remember some old band...

    "Well, someone's young," Stephanie sighed. "Must be nice."
    "I wouldn't know," Simon joked. "I was born old and cynical. What's going on? This is like a madhouse. I can't keep track of who is talking to whom."
    "Welcome to Chat. Conversations aren't linear. Nor are they bounded by time. Replies to a question can come minutes after its asked. Or hours. Not everybody is sitting at a desk. Some are up and about, and only looking at the screen every once in a while. Like WonderMan going off to make coffee. Or someone going to the bathroom, whatever... Some of these people even leave their computers connected to the chatroom while they sleep. They pick up conversations from before they left the computer, or read what people posted while they were away and jump back into the conversations that interest them. Concentrate on being helpful."
    "Yes, of course," Simon said.

Hamner7: They're thinking that they can brake it's speed without fragmenting it. Gonna be tough. Plus, they're not convinced that blasting it to bits is a bad idea. They think we're exaggerating the danger.
Simon42: I'd say what we need is a martial arts blocking move, not a sledgehammer. Divert the Object, not pulverize it.
@BB: Very good deduction, Simon.
PronQueen: We just summon our Chi and slap it sideways? ROTFL! I love it!
@MrWizzard: Nicola Tesla, PG17. Not the old pop music group. Tesla invented most of the things that make modern civilization possible.
Vila: BRB, rented beer...
Jewel_O_Denial: What about fragmenting from misplacing the nukes?
@Catwoman_=^^=: Ever hear of AC electricity, PG17? Or maybe Radio? Fluorescent lighting? Remote control? 3-phase AC electric motors? Radio Telescopes?
Hamner7: Yeah, if the math isn't done right, we'll get slammed by a million fragments rather than a few big ones. And what if the thing is already fragmented? We need better info.
Balrog23: How do you use nukes to steer the thing?
Cooldaddy118 has joined #Planetary_Emergency
Cooldaddy118: Any single chicklets wanna Private Chat with the Cool Daddy? We can get it on...
Cooldaddy118 has been kicked & banned by @Autologger
Whatta moe-rooon! Thank you thank you for kicking him, Autologger.
@Autologger: My pleasure, Nick.
NPollotta: Doc, how goes the research into the mono-filament wires that Mayfair Chem Labs is working on?
@Clark: Proceeding ahead of schedule, Nick. Thanks for asking. I'll tell Monk you said hello, shall I?
NPollotta: Yeah! Thanks!
Hamner7: Explode them high enough above the object to boil it on one side for thrust. *If* its a solid object. If its not solid, you wind up with a shotgun blast coming down your throat.
Stephanie11: But the math is a nightmare. Do it wrong and either nothing happens, or you get a cloud of fragments. I agree, we need more information.

    "What was Cooldaddy? Did he think that this was a singles bar?"
    "They're called 'trolls' Simon," Stephanie replied. "And they only want to disrupt things. For fun.
    "Fun? Pardon me if I define the word differently."
    "Shhhh... Back to work."

Vila: Back...
HarryRed: It'd be safer to use thermite than nukes. Especially if the thing is already fragmented.

EmperorMing: Tesla also invented wireless distribution of electricity, but old man Westinghouse couldn't figure out where to hook up the meter to charge the customers, so he deep-sixed Tesla's wireless power project.
ToolMan116: I still say we're going to need some on-site observations. That means a manned mission.
UncleJoe: Didn't he (Tesla) also invent a machine that made small earthquakes?
Toymanator: But what ship? We've got diddly that can be used further than Lunar orbit.
@Sinderella: I've read about the earthquake machine, yeah. Didn't Tesla invent some kind of turbine engine, too?
@TJ: SE's rockets & motors can get a ship in place twice as fast as anything in the inventory. And thermite is a great idea, Frank. But we'll have to place it on-site. Can't trust a program to place it right. We may have to pick sites to compensate for uneven melting. The thermite might tumble once it gets going.
InspectorGadget: Yeah? Like what?
HarryRed: I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated.
HarryRed: - Poul Anderson
Vila: I remember hearing that one.
Vila: Still makes me grin.
HarryRed: Wit is educated insolence.
HarryRed: - Aristotle
Vila: Well, I've got the insolence part down pat. I believe my education is still lacking as of yet, however.
Vila grins like a maniac.
Astrogator: Celestial nav's a bear even when you've got plenty of time.  How we going to work out the math quickly enough?
The solid-blade fluid turbine, yes. It worked best as part of an external-combustion engine. Like a locomotive. Give it a supply of steam, and it would outperform any other motor ever made. Tesla was a freakin' genius!
Zorro: How about using lasers to boil the rock for thrust gases?
@MrWizzard: Can't do that from here. We can't build big enough lasers on the ground. Not in time, no. We're planning to take the lasers to the Object, instead. To zap the Object for thrust and to shine on the sail for thrust, too.
EmperorMing: *That* sounds like a job for Tesla's Death Ray! ROTFL!

    "What about this 'Death Ray' everyone seems so hot over?"
    "Urban Legend, Simon. Supposedly, the State Department confiscated everything in Tesla's apartment when he died. Plans, diaries, working models, everything. The Death Ray is just the holy grail for conspiracy buffs with a Tesla fixation."
    "It's not real, then?"
    "It could be real, but so far its a legend. According to legend, Tesla wanted something he could use to write his name on the moon. So he built a particle beam gun, of some kind."
    "In quite bold print, I assume?"
    "Simon, another pun like that and I'll kick you. Anyway, if it ever existed at all, the State Department has it classified so deep it would take an archaeologist to find it."

Infiltrator: We ought to thank NASA for making the NERVA reactor designs available again after so many years in the archives. Just scale 'em up, and we've got plenty of power for the lasers. Too bad that we can't defy the laws of physics- We've got the lever, now all we need is a place to stand. :D
Astrogator: And what about the manned flight systems?  We have equipment programmed to be online when we need it?  What about Canaveral and Vandenberg?  Manned flight support, flight suits, food delivery...
@MrWizzard: We can anchor the thrust lasers to the Object, but the lasers for the sails will have to be anchored elsewhere.
@Q_Cubed: On the largest fragment, to be used when the thing calves. On every fragment, but aimed at the sails of other fragments.
Toymanator: One, five, and twenty crewmembers to a ship?
TC: What have we got that we can scrounge? Maybe we don't have to build all new stuff.
Astrogator: Exactly what I was asking?
@TJ: Any tin can that'll hold air will do. If we can fit it with useful instruments. SE and Probe have several designs underway. Hildago does too. NASA and ESA and JSSA have several good designs that are under study, as well as several existing capsules that can be modified. Russia, China, and England have several surplus capsules, too...
@Dexter: I have heard rumors that Quatermass is working on a design for a ship, too. No details have leaked to me, though.
ToolMan116: Museums can be raided for their surplus Vostoks & Geminis.
Toymanator: And some Apollo and Soyuz ships, too.
InspectorGadget: Please let us de-mothball the Shuttles!
@BB: We'll need everything we can slap together. E-mail the Institute with any brainstorms, people. I'll see to setting the right research groups on any possible paths that look useful.
Astrogator: Can we retrofit equipment that old?
TC: What kind of ships will be needed? How many of each? *Then* decide how many crew each type will need.

ToolMan116: First we have to define what we're going to use them for. Then we can decide on designs. And what about crewing these ships?
InspectorGadget: The re-entry shuttles don't need to go on the trip. We can built them in Earth orbit- after the expedition leaves. That'll save time *and* weight.

    "I'm afraid that Quatermass in no longer in the spaceship-building game." Simon spoke.  He still had nightmares about escaping from a vaporized island in the Atlantic.
    "Shhhh," Stephanie said.  "We'll have to keep that to ourselves for the time being."
    "What about crews?" Simon asked. "On whatever ships do get built, I mean. Fancy going for a spin?"
    "Not unless I have too. What about you?"
    "I'm far too old for such hazards. I'll take my chances on the ground with the terrorists, spys, activists, and we other deviants."
    "Unless you quit interrupting, we'll be at this all night."
    "Rome wasn't burnt in a day, Stephanie."
    "Rassum, frassum, sassum..."
    "I beg your pardon?"
    "Has anyone ever told you that you're a pain in the ass?"
    "Yes, Stephanie. Its one of my most endearing qualities, or so I'm told."

PronQueen: I really like the image of Kung Fu-ing the Object. Its poetic as hell. LOL!
EmperorMing: Tesla had over 3000 patents granted to him. If it had to do with electricity, his name was on the designs. Yet even today, almost no one knows his name. Edison & Marconi get credit for Tesla's work. There ain't no justice.
@DocHavoc: If we send a team, how are we going to train them for space in time?
@Dexter: My contacts at NASA and ESA say that there is no shortage of volunteers. Russia & China too. Disturbingly, there have been no rumors from JSSA for many months.
@BB: I'll look into that, Dexter. Maybe I can call in some favors.

"Hang on," Simon muttered. "I just noticed something"
    "What, Simon?"

Simon42: Who is Zod and why doesn't he or she talk?

@Orac: Oops!
Balrog23: GACK! Again?
@Zod: 23 months, 4 days, 11 hours, 14 minutes, 32 seconds until impact.
@BB: Thank you, Zod. But we'd prefer to know how to avoid our fate.
@Zod: Fate is the same for all beings. Only the way that they meet it is different.
Simon42: How droll, a Zen aphorism in place of wisdom.

    "Simon," Stephanie hissed. "Zod is the computer virus!"

Zod slaps Simon42 about a bit with a wet trout.
@Catwoman_=^^=: Zod, play nice. Simon has only just met you.
@Zod: Zen is wisdom distilled into purity.
Simon42: I apologize, Zod. I am frustrated by the UN not listening to reason.
@Zod: Apology un-necessary.

"A wet trout? I suppose it beats the hell out of getting slapped with a dry one, but... What the Sam-Hill is going on?"
    "Relax, Simon. The wet trout bit is as old as IRC chat. You've just been gently chastised by a rogue computer program. How does that make you feel?"
    "Stop grinning. It isn't funny."
    "Oh yes it is," Stephanie laughed. "The great Doctor Simon Litchfield, lopped off at the knees by a mere string of ones and zeros. How priceless.
" Stephanie laughed aloud.
    "Just read the bloody screen," Simon snapped.

@MrWizzard: That frustrates myself as well. Stephanie, how goes your own research?
@BB: A question I'll echo, Stephanie. ??
Stephanie11: I think nukes aren't going to work, even just used as a thrusting force. No one has ever done an actual test, so we have to guess at the data.
@Orac: That's exactly what we've been arguing about for the last few months. I even e-mailed Organlegger with questions about the books he used NEO impacts in.
@TJ: Wow, what'd he say?
@Orac: He pointed out the places where the math had to suffer a little because of the story. I went back to our research and added in some corrections. Didn't change much on the results.
@TJ: Still too little too late?
@Orac: Yeah. I presented the results last night to everyone in the chatroom.
@BB: Yes. We should have launched last year. At least seven months ago. Everything we've come up with, all too late. Still, failure only teaches you that you're looking in the wrong place.
Astrogator:  Sorry I've been so negative.  Too many hours in this place.

    "Sounds like they may be receptive of your plans Stephanie," Simon said.
    "Let's hope so. Exterminated is forever. OK, here goes..."

Stephanie11: That's exactly my point. You all have been working full speed to find the one plan that will work.
Simon42: There isn't one?
Stephanie11: No, not one single plan, not with what we've been working on. Or with. We haven't been asking the right questions.
Simon42: And we haven't been asking the right person, evidently.
Stephanie11: We'll need to work together. I think that we're going to need Sails to pull, rockets to push, Lasers to burn, and NERVA reactors to power almost all of it. There's no way that this can be pulled off by an un-manned mission. We're going to have to send people. Lots of people. And there is not some single plan that's going to save us, but we *can* make a workable plan- out of a combination of all the ones we've been working on individually But there's one thing we need even more right now- Zod, we need better observations of the object. We *need* to know what we're up against!
@Zod: The data archives contain more than twelve months of detailed observations.
@Zod: The archive is constantly updated.
@Zod: The archive is free to all.
@Zod: 23 months, 4 days, 11 hours, 12 seconds until impact.

    "Well that went well," Simon muttered. "Stephanie-"
    "Don't worry about it, Simon. Its a computer program. A little one. It's just running on a lot of machines at once, so its very fast. The virus is just ones and zeros. It isn't a person, but it is imitating one here in this chatroom."
    "Why should a program do that?"
    "Only because it was written to do so."
    "So, how do we get the bugger to give us the info we need?"
    "Like any computer. We have to deduce which buttons to push, in the proper order."
    "Have I told you lately that you're beautiful when you're being relentlessly logical?"
    "Simon," she said with mock offense, "save the charm for your ex-wives... But thank you. We'll have to use the data the virus already gave us to deduce the right questions to ask. I've got a file of the things that it has directly responded to in the past. We'll have to see if we can extrapolate a little more info. Maybe get it to let some password data slip. Hell, I don't know. I'll have to wing it. Tesla, Tunguska, and the virus- There's something there, some connection- I can feel it."
    "But, what possible connection could there be between Nicola Tesla, Tunguska, a particle beam, and the computer virus?"
    "Let's ask the group, Simon. Let's ask the group. Maybe we can get some clues from the replies. Then we can figure out better questions to ask Zod."

Year Two, January:
Wheels Within Wheels
[Electrical Language]

11:59 AM, January 8th

    "Stephanie? Knock, knock..."
    "Come in, Simon. Come over here and see this."

Stephanie11: I know. Or I think I do. Zod, reference: Tunguska-
@Zod: Air-burst explosion over deserted area of Russia- June 30, 1908. The explosion of the Tunguska object released energy equivalent to a modern nuclear warhead, about 10 megatons or 500 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The area of devastation covered in excess of 66 square kilometers. There was no detectable residual radiation. Considerable local disruptions of the planet's electromagnetic field were recorded, however. Such was the population density of the area that no human fatalities were recorded. Four minor injuries, and the loss of several hundred thousand reindeer were recorded. Effects of the blast can still be observed. More specific data is listed in the Archives.

    "You got him to answer a question!"  Simon spoke enthusiastically as he squeezed her shoulders.  " That's marvelous."
    "Well, once I began to understand how the virus was behaving it became much easier to find commands written into it."
    "You haven't been working straight through the last two days?"
    "Don't fear," she said, "I've been home to shower and sleep. Both days."
    "You're still in the chatroom, I see."
    "Different room. This one is just the executive committee, so to speak."
    "Who is everyone?"
    "Heads of think tanks, CEOs, mad scientists, secret agents-"
Stephanie pointed to several of the names on the screens.
    "The usual suspects."
    "Exactly, Simon."
    "I meant who is everyone, really?"
  Stephanie pointed again and spoke nonchalantly. "The CEO of Hidalgo, plus old man Quest and-"
    "Yes. What's the matter? You chatted with them just the other night."
    "I didn't realize to whom I was speaking. You could have warned me. You are an evil woman, Stephanie Keel, and you did this on purpose just to embarrass me. Be warned, I'm taking notes... OK, Who else?"
    "Well, Swift's heir," Stephanie continued with a straight face, pointing to different names on the monitor screen as she spoke. "And I think that WonderMan is MI-7. I know Scarlett is FBI or MIB or UNIT or something. And Doctor Fanshaw, Catwoman, she works at CIA Langley. Oh, uh... Banzai Institutes's CEO, a couple of science fiction writers,
someone from JPL, somebody else from NASA, Frank Gasperik, Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter, the computer guy from the Grateful Dead- what's his name... A couple of the others I can't place right offhand."
    "And the virus."
    "I'm beginning to wonder if it is just a virus, Simon." She bit her lip in concentration. "Zod's  more like an AI than a virus."
    "Something living in the Internet? A digital construct?"
    "I think he's even stranger than that. I'm beginning to wonder if he isn't any more online than we are. There's all this interference with global wireless communications. I know for a fact that there aren't any sunspots to cause it. That's just part of covering up the existence of the comet, Zod, and his effects."
    "What are you suggesting?" Simon laughed cheerlessly.  "The global conspiracy was supposed to have started after the comet was discovered."
    "Its just a theory, mind you. But what if Zod is more than just an Internet problem? I've found reliable reports of computers that have never been connected to the Internet get taken over by Zod. Even some that can't be connected to the Internet."
    "Infected by floppy discs?"
    "Possible. But not in every case. No. It looks more like Zod was built in to every computer ever made. I think he's hardware! Not software."
    "Clarke's First Law, Simon."
    "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right." Stephanie grinned.  "When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."
    "I see. Well, at least you think that I'm distinguished. But 'elderly'? Surely not."
    "You're spry enough. So you have a little seniority built up- so what? The problem at hand is how could an AI be built into everything? I'm almost sure that he functions in the radio frequencies and just uses the computers he infects to go online. I just can't find the exact frequency. Or the piece of hardware that emits it." She looked around at the various pieces of computer equipment scattered about the room.  "I can't even figure out how something like this could have ever been incorporated. But I swear, its beginning to look like there's a little piece of Zod in every computer ever built. If I could just trace the damn frequency... No time for that now. Back to the problem at hand."
@BB: We don't even know that it is that we're really up against.
CptnScarlett: What are we really dealing with? A solid rock or a pile of rubble? Radar returns are crap on this thing. Its got a stealth surface! LOL! Visible light and UV isn't much better, although IR instruments do show the object to be bigger than the radar image.
WonderMan: Exactly! Its a whole lot bigger than it looks on radar. The surface must be pock-marked with little craters and fissures.  Scatters the reflection so the dishes don't get much of a return.
@Catwoman_=^^=: Like pumice? Nuke that and you'd get a cloud of fragments. What's the bloody thing made of?
@MrWizzard: We've got to know its mass and composition. Are we going to be trying to anchor our sails to a snowball? A rock? A bunch of boulders locked in ice?
Stephanie11: Zod, reference: the best view from your telescopes-
@BB: So far, the best view I've seen is of a small dark blur. But it moves.
@Zod: Password required.
Stephanie11: Zod, password: Nicola Tesla
@Zod: Password incorrect. Password required for access to composite view.

"Damn, I knew that one would be too simple for it."
    "What, Stephanie?"
    "Zod's programmer was obviously a Tesla fanatic. It was too much to hope for that his passwords would be easy."
    "Why should a telescope view need a password?
    "Um... Simon, I was focusing on the problem so much that that one went past me. Thank you.

@Catwoman_=^^=: Why should this require a password?
WonderMan: The rest of the astronomy is free. What gives?
CptnScarlett: WTF? Zod has been keeping secrets? Oh, wait... LOL! Yeah, of course he would.
@Clark: Yes. Why should this "best view" be password protected?
@BB: Zod, why is the composite view password protected?

    "Simon, you might want to log in on the other computer and get into this one. You thought of it first."
    "No thank you, Stephanie. I'll just read over your shoulder and you can give color commentary."

@Zod: Composite view could lead to panic in the streets if presented to the general public. This is to be avoided at all costs. Access is restricted for this reason. Any singular telescopic view is still freely available to the public through the Archives.
@Clark: Very humane of you, Zod. But we do need the best information possible in order to avert this disaster.
@TJ: Can you give us a hint? LOL!

    "What was the name of the place where Tesla had his beamed power experiment?" Simon asked as he pulled up a chair next to the computer.
    "The project Westinghouse killed, Simon? Wardenclife? Wireless electricity?"
    "Yes, try that one, Stephanie.

Zod, password: Wardenclife
@Zod: Password accepted.
@Zod: Image now on your monitor, Stephanie11. Now on other monitors of those in this chatroom. Access is still denied to the rest of the planet.
@TJ: Good Lord! "Worst Case: Projected 6000 Gigaton impact damage...." In the Mid-Atlantic? I'm having trouble with the math... Will every single drop of water on the planet vaporise in the heat, or  have I slipped a decimal place and only everything between Italy and California will burst into steam instantly? Never mind the molten rock, that's a whole other math problem...
@BB: That's big. That's *really* big. Zod was right. This sharp and clear a view, with all the other sub-windows with the course data, the countdown clock... It'd panic anybody.
@Catwoman_=^^=: It looks like a big pear. I refuse to be made extinct by gigantic stone fruit sculptures. Can we deflect that?
Can we split it into smaller pieces? That's too big to manage in one piece. The sails would work better on fragments, too. At least we know its solid, now. Looks like granite, but that has to be an illusion. Can't have igneous formations on a proto-planetary mass. Must be an aggregate- a natural concrete- but vacuum cemented. Something like sandstone or slate? We could sink anchors into that sort of material safely enough, I think. More data! We need more facts, Dr. Watson! LOL!
@MrWizzard: It would be safer to carve it up into manageable chunks with the lasers. Take a lot of extra power, though. I'm going to have to make sure the design for the laser diffusers are more variable. We're going to have to do a little surgery as well as make spotlights to shine on the sails for extra thrust. We still might not be able to do it with what we can build in time. We *do* have a launch deadline.
@BB:  We're not going to be able to hide something that big from the public forever... News will leak out eventually. We need to plan for that.
@TJ: We need Tesla's Death Ray.  That'd carve this turkey up like a... Well, a turkey. LOL! If only the damn thing were real! --- instead of a conspiracy-theorist's wet dream. <grin>

Stephanie11: Well let's just test out a little theory of my own, TJ. Have to go at it in stages, though...
Stephanie11: Zod, reference: Nicola Tesla-Cthulu: Composite Imaging
@Zod: Father of the electrical infrastructure that underlays all of modern civilization.  Inventor of radio.  Inventor of poly-phase alternating current, or AC electricity. Designer of every AC electrical motor in the world. Designer of every hydro-electric generator in the world. Architect of the modern AC electrical power distribution grid. Inventor of wireless broadcasting of electricity. Inventor of the bladeless turbine. Inventor of several types of step-up and step-down transformers. Inventor of three forms of wireless florescent lighting. Inventor of wireless remote control systems. Designer of a flying automobile, without need for an onboard fuel supply...  Complete public list is available from the US Patent Office files.

    "Now we're getting somewhere, Stephanie. Ask the bloody thing about itself."

Stephanie11: Zod, reference: Zod-
@Zod: AI, designed in AD 1912, assigned to give warning of the approach of the Cthulu Object in case of its return. Currently running on one third of all the computers worldwide. Further detail is restricted.

    "Another dead end," Stephanie growled as she threw up her hands.  "We'd have to find another password to get to the bottom of who made Zod."
    "1912?" Simon said incredulously.  "Good God! Who could have designed an artificial intelligence in 1912? There weren't even computers back then."
    "Tesla? He did design the And Gate logic circuit that wound up making modern computers possible. And he did invent radio, and radio control- remote control."
    "Fly by wireless, 'eh?"
    "So ask Zod about Tesla, the Death Ray, the comet, and everything."

Stephanie11: Zod, reference: the Object-
@Zod: NEO, modern day, popular name: Cthulu. Object is 46 by 24 kilometers. Data indicates that the object is, or is a large fragment of, the parent mass of Comet Enke...
Stephanie11: Zod, cross reference: Tunguska-
@Zod: NEO, near impact event, 1908, possibility exists that the object Cthulu is part of the Tunguska Object's parent mass. The rest of the parent mass was deflected by Nicola Tesla in 1908. Cthulu's orbit closely matches predictions for the returning parent mass.
@Catwoman_=^^=: You *go* girl! LOL!

    "Thank you Miranda."
    "Dr. Fanshaw. She's OK."
    "Old Girl's School Network, I see," Simon laughed as his mood brightened. "Well, don't let us interrupt the search for wisdom, here."
    "Simon, you make me wish we worked at the Post Office."
    "Down, Girl! Back to the problem at hand? Zod, the particle beam, and everything?"
    "You rat. You'll pay for that."
    "The check is in the mail, my dear."

Stephanie11: Zod, reference: Tesla's particle beam,  cross reference: Tunguska, cross reference: the Object-
@Zod: I cannot comply with that request. I do not have access to all stated variables.

"Say what?"
    "Something significant just happened. Something weird. Let me think..." She got up and quickly walked to another computer.  After a few quick keystrokes, she frowned at that screen, then she returned to her desk and sat down again.

    "What, pray tell?"
    "Zod just told us that there's something that he can't get to."
    "What could that be?"
    "Dunno, yet. Shut up and let me think......"  She looked back at the other computer.  "OK, Let's take it one step at a time.  I'm trying to reference a few things over there the hard way.  We just need a clue."

Stephanie11: OK, one step at a time then. Zod, reference: Tesla's particle beam-
@Zod: I do not have access to that data.
@BB: He's never said *that* before!
CptnScarlett: Wonder what he means?

    "Hush Simon, let me think..."

Stephanie11: Does that data still exist?
@Zod: Yes. That data can still be accessed- But in hardcopy form only.
Stephanie11: Where is that data?
@Zod: Pallet 7042110328, third tier, seventh row. Storage building M-31, 318 Walnut Grove, Washington, DC, USA, Earth, Sol 3, Outer Western Arm - Mutter's Spiral.

    "Oh, so its all right for you to say it."
    "Hush, Simon!"

@BB: That's an old FBI file storage warehouse. The parking lot for a club I sometimes play in is right across the street.
Stephanie11: And apparently that warehouse is a whole lot more than just an old warehouse. All right, who can get us access?
CptnScarlett: That would be my job, Ms. Keel.
@Clark: You are FBI, Captain?
CptnScarlett: Not exactly Sir, but I *am* this group's designated liaison to the US intelligence agencies. WonderMan is my Euro-League counterpart. Our Asian colleague isn't in the chatroom at the moment, but we'll send him reports. That's the deal. If everyone stays properly briefed, our governments won't panic and do something stupid. But as I was saying... If you need something from an American intelligence service, I'm empowered to *procure* it for you. Let me copy that location down and I'll get on the horn to my superiors right away. No matter how damn Top Secret those papers are, Ms. Keel should be able to see copies of them tomorrow. Copies that haven't been censored, or I'll be putting a boot up someone's butt. Pardon my language please, sirs and madams. I can have them delivered in the morning, or heads will roll.
Stephanie11: You get me those blueprints Captain, and we've all got a good chance of surviving this mess. And panic in the streets is the last thing that I want, too. Just give me a little time to work the plans out into something we *ordinary* mortals can understand. LOL!
@Catwoman_=^^=: Captain Scarlett, if you come through for Dr. Steff in time, I promise that I'll introduce you to my cousin. The um, actress.
CptnScarlett: Yes Ma'am! *Absolutely*, I will come through! LOL!
@MrWizzard: Now that we know what we're up against we can start deciding what kinds of ships we'll need, and how many of each.
Stephanie11: I'm going AFK until I have time to study those plans. See you all later. In a day or three... BBFN, friends!
@TJ: Having the Tesla Beam to carve Cthulu into manageable pieces is going to make this job a thousand percent easier. Another thing we're going to have to think about, Benton- sweeping up any debris from splitting the comet into smaller bits.  Bye Steff! Hugs!
@MrWizzard: Have you got any ideas, Tom? Bye Steph!
@Clark: Fishing nets. We need something to act like fishing nets to snag all the debris with. We can put a sail on the nets once they're full and steer them where we want them. See you later, Stephanie.
@TJ: I've been working on some sketches, but I think Clark hit it on the head.
Stephanie11 has quit IRC: Connection terminated by user.

"Congratulations Stephanie!" Simon spoke proudly.  "You  cracked the puzzle!"
    "A puzzle, Simon. Just one puzzle. I've got a much bigger one waiting for me in the morning. I need to go home and get some sleep. I want to come at this thing fresh and alert."
    "Oh come on, this is worth celebrating, surely? Its only three in the afternoon, for goodness sake. You can't sleep now."
    "Shoo! Go home, go to the Canon Moon, or go wherever you like.." Stephanie finally allowed herself to yawn openly after having stifled several of them earlier.  "Besides that, I lied.  I have been here for two days."
    Simon smiled as he stood up.  "I know," he said as he patted her on the shoulder.  "Go home.  I'm in the mood for some bisque."
    Stephanie yawned again and stretched.  "I need a big hot meal, a long hot shower and several hours deep sleep. And I need it all now!"
"All right, I'm going, I'm going... Sheesh, you can be downright mean when you've got your teeth in a problem."
    Stephanie shoved Simon out of her office door, while grabbing her coat and scarf from the coat tree that stood next to the doorway. The hallways of the Nightwatch Institute reverberated from the echo of her office door slamming shut in the early winter afternoon quiet.

Year Two, January:

Tesla's Particle Beam

[White Light, White Heat]

9:19 AM, January 9th

    Deep within the maze-like confines of the lower levels of the Nightwatch Institute, Stephanie Keel's office door was wide open, with quiet strains of instrumental music gently wafting into the hallway. The FBI's courier left-handedly adjusted the tilt of his dark sunglasses and brushed some imaginary dust off of his suit lapels before knocking on the open door. The well-tailored black suit set off his dark complexion and his athletic physique. The portfolio case weighing down his right arm had several unbroken wax seals affixed to secure it's closure.
    "Stephanie Keel?" the agent asked, in a warm baritone voice, as he knocked.
    "Come in," came Stephanie's muffled voice from within the office.
    The agent strode in to find Stephanie rising from her desk. A chatroom program was visible on one computer monitor, complex equations on a second. A radio-frequency direction-finder applet seemed to be unproductively running on a third monitor. Among the usual clutter of Stephanie's office, one new, pristinely clean drafting table stood out as if it were an altar prepared for the writings of some saint to be displayed upon. "If you'll just show me some ID, I'll put this over there and wait for you to scan the documents to a disc," he said, nodding towards the bare table.
    "Nice to meet you too," Stephanie replied as she smiled good-naturedly. "Here's my card. And my other card... and my other, other card..."
    "OK, OK, " the agent laughed as he looked the ID cards over and swiped one of them through a hand held reader. "I've got to follow orders, you know? Nothing personal."
    "Are the sunglasses really necessary? Agent-"
    "Smith, Ma'am. Agent Smith, Bureau Thirteen, Division Six. I'm a Special Courier for the FBI, CIA, OSI, NORAD, SAC, LSMFT, et cetera... Yes Ma'am, we get questions about the shades all the time. All I can say is that they are part of the security system, Ma'am."
    Agent Smith studied the tiny computer readouts that were reflected onto the inside of the dark lenses of his Issue
Sunglasses from equally tiny projectors embedded in the frames. His deep, liquid brown eyes quickly flicked across the miniature display, almost without effort. The readouts were reassuring: no bugs in the room, no hidden recording devices... The room was totally clear. Oh, the devices were still there, five cameras and three microphones, but they had all been deactivated several hours ago. The veteran agent decided that it was safe to relax here, slightly. With tiny lasers reading his careful eye-movements and blinks, the agent set up a low-level proximity scan against intruders or reactivation of the bugs, and activated the necessary alarms. He also deleted six hundred and fifty seven Spam e-mails, and twenty two virus attacks from his personal e-mail account. All of this took only a few seconds as he stood there.
    "I see," Stephanie stifled a giggle. Kinda cute, in a Hip-Hop sort of way. She thought, but way too smart-ass for a real FBI agent. He must be a trainee. "Yes- well, if you're finally satisfied that I'm me, then put the papers on that table and let's get to sorting through them. And please-"
    "Yes Ma'am?"
    "Stop calling me Ma'am. It creeps me out. My name is Stephanie."
    "Its your lab Stephanie. I'm not a whiz-kid, just a messenger boy. I won't be of much help to you."
    "You've got hands and a brain, don't you? We'll be able to put them to use. Now what have we got here?" Stephanie mused, as the drawings and note papers were laid out on the drafting table. She picked up a note pad from her desk and started listing the pages of research and blueprints, trying to deduce the proper order. Tesla's spidery handwriting of his older years didn't help matters any. The two sorted and listed pages until nearly noon. Finally, Stephanie scanned the drawings and notes into her computer and made two copies onto disks. Then they put the papers all back into the portfolio case.
    "Here," she said as she handed Agent Smith one of the disks. "Put this one with your files for the next time the end of the world gets close. With what we've got here, I think we can save the world, this time."
    "Been a pleasure working with you, Stephanie. Good luck making sense of all those chicken tracks..." Agent Smith hesitated, then became serious. "Do we really have a chance? Will this stuff make a difference? Don't kid me, Lady. I know the score. Chicken Little was frickin' right! The sky is gonna fall. My bosses are all shaking in their boots. This is the for-real end of the world..."
     "No!" Stephanie said forcefully- as she held the agent's free hand, tightly. "That is not going to happen. We're going to stop this thing. Stop it in its tracks. The papers you've brought me will see to that. Everything's going to be fine, just wait and see. You and I, right now... We just saved the world today. You've done your part, but now it's time for me to do mine. But you can be sure that we're gonna make it! And you helped do it, too."
    "Thank you, Stephanie. Well-- good bye." The Agent crossed the room and hesitated in the open doorway.
    "Good bye, Agent Smith. And don't worry, the sky hasn't fallen just yet. We still have time."

    Everything will be just fine... Stephanie thought to herself as she walked over and closed her office door. I wonder if he bought it.  Hell, I wonder if I bought it! If I can just figure out how to turn this century-old paperwork into a functioning prototype! She crossed her office, sat down at her desk, and called up the first file. Down to the wire time, Stephanie. The clock is ticking and you've got to come up with the design for the winning machine. Just like "Junkyard Wars III" damn it, just like the show... Time to put the puzzle together... Time to get to work...

Year Two, January:

Spacecraft Scavenging
[One Piece At A Time]

9:09 AM, January 12th

    The scene was repeated countless times over the next few weeks, as swarms of transport contractors and people with clipboards descended upon scores of Air & Space museums across the world. Like hungry locusts, they came and took what they wanted. They offered no explanations- But they paid well. Museums and parks everywhere found their spacecraft displays swarmed over by researchers- and scavengers.

    "OK Billy, we'll take this one, the Gemini, and the Vostock," said the tired looking man, holding a clipboard as if it were made of lead.
    "The what?" gaped Billy De Witt, the museum curator, running his right hand through his thinning brown hair. His fingers ruined his comb-over, but he didn't seem to notice..
    "The Russian one there- Whatever you call it. Sign here. Good. OK Bob, let's get 'em on the truck."
    "Right, Chuck," Bob said as he turned to go get his crew started. A huge flatbed truck sat just outside and backed up to the museum's loading dock. The curve of the museum's planetarium wall- adjoining the small warehouse area -served almost incidentally to hide the back parking lot and loading dock from the nearby highway. Bob's workmen were already attaching nylon lift straps to the Russian capsule. A compact forklift crane rolled off the truck to trundle over to the workmen..
    "What are you going to do with them?"
    "Well Billy," Chuck started to say.
    "Mister De Witt, if you please."
    "Billy," Chuck continued, "I don't rightly know. All I was told was to come here and get the best ones. Some study group wants to reverse engineer a new design or something- Part of that UN training deal... That's my guess."
    "I got an e-mail about this from Jonesy over at Princeton. He said the crew that came there took his best Apollo, and his two-seater Delta-wing X-15... You know how rare that thing is?"
    "Relax," Chuck said just as Bob removed the first of the display signs.  "We got some good replicas comin' your way.  No one ever has to know these puppies left."
    "That's not the point," Billy protested.
    "Yeah Billy, I know."  Chuck whistled loudly.  "Hey!  Don't bang up that thruster assembly."  He looked again at Billy.  "It's all part of the same project. You should have seen Huntsville when we got through with it. This is my thirteenth museum in six days, Billy. In seven different states. Believe me, I've heard everything you're going to say- at least three times over..."  Chuck sighed tiredly, as if running out of steam.
    "This is freakin' unbelievable! You're ruining my museum.  Screwing around with history!"   Billy gestured around at his small display hall. Proudly- almost desperately- clean. And looking decidedly forlorn, with three of its major displays now being trundled out the back door. It was clear that Billy ran the museum as a labor of love. Despite the proximity of the local college town, the Clinch River Air & Space Museum clearly hadn't been a profitable business since sometime in the middle of the last century. "How am I supposed to attract tourists now?" Billy added plaintively.
    "I told ya," Chuck said as he watched the Gemini capsule head out the door.  "We've got some good replicas comin'.  AND you'll be paid for them- paid well, too. And you might even get 'em back- I don't know. Depends on what the Big Boys do with 'em. Don't sweat it. Just think of what you can get with all that cash, Billy. You'll be able to upgrade your planetarium, and add some new interactive stuff for the kids...  But it could be better."
    "Fiberglass replicas?" Billy said angrily as he shook his head. "Vehicular taxidermy? They wouldn't be real! How could that be better?"
    "You could make 'em interactive. Let customers climb inside and work controls that actually do something. You couldn't even let 'em touch the real ones- I'll bet," Chuck sounded confident. "You've got a nice little place here, Billy. But it's obvious you've been running on a shoestring budget lately. Your dad bought those capsules when he first opened this place, didn't he?"
    "Well, the Gemini, yeah. He added the others over the years. Why?"
    "Well, it's like this. Think of it as if your dad had made an investment. Something to help you keep the place open if you ever ran into lean times."
    "Yeah? What are you trying to say, Chuck?"
    "Its time to cash in on that investment, Billy. The lean times have arrived. Face it, you really need the money if you're going to keep this place open much longer."
    "Yeah, well... Money isn't everything."
    "It's all that counts, Billy. It's the only thing you can use to pay the bills."


Excerpt from Classified Document:
UN Security Council Briefing --

DOC # 2701-56438-2102
Spacecraft Construction -  Assembly Yard Inspection:

    Though much of the truth is still unknown to the public, behind the public scenes the preparations to avert this disaster are shifting into high gear. Old spacecraft of every description are being shipped around the world. Any sort of spare parts that could possibly be of use will soon follow. Old blueprints, retrieved from dusty archives, are being studied, copied, modified- Then new designs will soon follow. In vehicle assembly buildings of every space going nation, new ships are being built side-by-side with the rebuilding of the old. A mixing of history with the bright promise of the future. The older spacecraft are modified slightly- With new materials and control systems being mated to the existing frameworks. New engines and fuel systems replace the aged originals. And all the original parts are to be numbered and stored, against the possibility that something might come in handy later. Future flight crews assist in the make-over of the old capsules, as well as the construction of the entirely new ships. They will get to train briefly with the finished vehicles, before the craft get shipped off to be fitted into a transport. The flight crews will then move on to simulator training. Eventually, they will become a cadre of teachers to train all the rest of the expedition's crew. The refurbished antiques are to be fitted, side-by-side with the pristine shapes of the new spacecraft designs, into launch vehicles. Eventually, they will be fired into orbit. They will either go into parking orbit to await booster modules- or the clandestine orbital location behind the Moon. The spaceyard teems with as much hidden activity as there are in the public ones, as the huge vehicles necessary to house the Tesla Beam weapons slowly take shape. In all spaceports, the expedition craft are being swarmed with work crews. The actinic flare of arc welding by hundreds of gloved hands light the nearby darkness of space. Where sunlight, earth-light, and moonlight are blocked, the flicker of arc-light casts it's own shadows.
    The sail modules are designed to have a highly adaptable docking system. That way, different antique spacecraft and x-planes can be used for the Mag-Sails and Light-Sails manned cockpits. Other of the antiques will be attached to modern engine modules in order to equip them as scout craft. The x-planes will be the hardest to retro-fit for vacuum. All the antiques are being stripped down and re-fitted with new electronics and hardware. Composite materials are also being used to "re-skin" the old spacecraft.
    Great effort has also been made to build different modules for different jobs, using a new, generalized space-tug design: to attach manned sections to the right module to suit the needs of the required job on site at the comet. Everyone who has been working on these projects has felt the pressure to beat the countdown clock. The sky is still falling. Despite the progress so far, the real work has barely begun. In the spaceyards, spider-legged sail modules are being fitted to Apollo and Soyuz capsules- the legs curling up over the capsules, and housing the spools of mono-filament line that will eventually be fastened to the light sails, or the electrical lines that will perform the same function for the electro-magnetic sails. Gemini and Mercury capsules, and different X-planes are being fitted with thruster/engine modules. All the effort to outfit the antiques with new materials and instruments is paying off in the spaceyard assembly areas, now. And will pay off yet again on the mission.
    And moving off into the deep darkness, un-manned rockets have already begun transporting supply packets out into the night. The expedition ships will gradually overtake and collect these care packages on the voyage out to the comet. This way, vital supplies will be pre-placed for the fleet to recover as needed.

    Master Sargent A.E. Vincent, ID# 002134-540213

UN 5th  Battalion, Inspector General's Office
Ground and Orbital Spaceyard Inspection Detail
Confirmation Code: 37-MXL-234K 56NVT-1708NLR ++ 127NV-L73-213R    

Year Two, February:
The Events of:
The Kindness of Strangers


Year Two, February:
Uncle Sam Wants You!
[Panic in the World]

-Help Wanted-
Construction Workers, Shipbuilders,
Motorcyclists, Fishing
Trawler Crews.
Adventurous types
wanted. Must be able to tolerate
hardships and rugged conditions.

Must be ready to relocate to job
site for 1
to 2 years. Military
Service a plus, but not required
Apply to Hidalgo International
Technologies, NY, NY

3210-702-365-2201 Ex. 85
Insurance, Dental Plan,
 401k/IRA included.
-Help Wanted-
Construction Workers, Welders,
Deep-Sea Divers, Navy Veterans,
Particle Physicists, Sailboat Crews,
Long Haul Truckers, Steel Workers,
Electricians, etc.

Adventurous types needed.
Must be able to tolerate hardships
and rugged conditions.
Must be ready
to relocate to job site for 1
to 2
years. Military Service a plus, but
required. Apply to The Quest
Group, Alternative

4707-805-849-1138 Ex. 369
-Help Wanted-
Adventurous types wanted. Must be able to tolerate hardships and rugged conditions. Must be ready to relocate to work site for 1 to 2 years. Military Service a plus, but not required. Apply to the Probe Agency offices in Washington DC:
3771-617-335-1121 Ex. 256
Insurance, Dental, 401k/IRA/ISS-RA included. Good Pay, Excitement, Travel, Dangerous Jobs, Training.

-- Sincere Replies Only --
Freedom Is Never Easy Work...

-Help Wanted-
 Jobs for Adventurous types. Good pay, some real risk. Must be able
to tolerate real hardships and rugged conditions. Must be able to relocate to job-site for 1 to 2 years. Military Service not a handicap. Must be in good health
honest. Must supply own tatami mat, weapons, tools, & 50-hour candle.
Apply to Banzai Institute's Washington DC Campus Annex
Building 21, Office 413
or telephone:
3131-617-025-4288 Ex. 413

    Although it was almost in secret, Mankind did what Mankind does best. Mankind prepared for war. And as in any war, some people volunteer, and others get drafted...

10:15AM, February 25th

    "I know someone," Captain Able said as he lowered his coffee cup into the saucer in his left hand, "the most brilliant pilot I've ever seen.  But..."  The group was assembled in a semi-darkened cafeteria at the Pentagon--military, scientific, Nightwatch.
    "But what, Captain?" Callow said- pausing from taking a sip of his own coffee. The faint scent of brandy mixed with the headier aroma of rich Colombian coffee that was wafting around the room.
    "But," Able said, "she's a flake, a complete nut job.  Between the panic attacks and..."
    "Best man- person -for the job? Despite her- handicaps?"
    "Yes, Mr. Callow. She's the best I've ever seen. If you need someone qualified as a fighter-bomber pilot, this woman is the best that there's ever been. And she grew up on a fishing trawler. I'd say she's the one you're looking for. She has advanced training in almost everything that you've described to me."
    "But she needs a babysitter," Callow retorted. "Never mind, Captain. I think I know the perfect person for the job..."

11:25AM, February 25th

    "You want me to what?" asked Tom Weldon. He was in the Nightwatch Institutes's Library by Callow's express invitation. Callow's special sound-deadening insulation around the Popular Culture section- where he normally met with Dr. Litchfield -was strained to it's limits by Tom's bellowed reply to Callow's request.
    "We need you to nursemaid one of the expedition pilots through any rough patches," Callow replied smoothly.  "She's the best qualified applicant to the Pilot's position on one of the seven-man debris trawler ships going out to the Object. It would be the perfect cover for you to represent Nightwatch's interests in this matter."
    "And it would be perfect cover in what way?"
    "She is already one of your patients, Doctor Weldon. Abigail Schlesinger."
    "Abby Schlesinger?" Tom exclaimed. "Small woman? Rather masculine? Perpetual baseball cap and fly-away hair? Prone to panic attacks?"
    "That's the woman," Callow replied. "The best B-3c pilot we could find."
    "She said she was a truck driver..." Tom thought twice. "I mean, never heard of her!" Tom began, then trailed off in thought. "You have an ulterior motive," Tom said moments later, while looking Callow in the eye. "There's more to this than there seems."
    "And if there is?"
    "You've never liked me, Callow," Tom replied.  "I know that. I've always known that. But I never thought you'd go so far as to actually try to get me killed. I'm not qualified to be an astronaut."
    "You are an unknown quantity, Doctor Weldon. I dislike unknown quantities. Nightwatch has never been able to complete its file on you." Callow sat back in his chair and placed his fingertips together.  "Yet the Lower Echelon has chosen you to be their eyes and ears on this mission. Against my better judgment, I might add. You have proven to be an able operative for Nightwatch, albeit freelance, in the past."  He pointed an accusing finger at Tom.  "Except for Patagonia, mind you." Tom laughed cheerlessly.  "This is simply more of the same, but solo. Ms. Keel cannot go, she is too valuable. Dr. Litchfield cannot go, he can't tolerate free fall- due to a virulent attack of German Measles when he was a child.  The poor sod pukes his guts out almost every time he has to parachute. You, however-"
    "I, however, happen to be claustrophobic," Tom replied. "And you want me to sit in a sardine can for five months or more?"
    "You were able to tolerate the confines of a Russian submarine, when the need arose."
    "That was only for a few hours-"
    "Nevertheless, the expedition vessels will be as large as..." Callow laughed coldly. "Well, they'll be more comfortable and roomier than, say, an Apollo capsule. There are actually several pressure vessels on the lead ships. You will only have to endure the cramped confines of the smaller ships for eight to twelve hours at a time," Callow said soothingly. "Furthermore, that shift work will only start once you arrive at the Object. Until then, the voyage will be more like a working vacation on an ocean liner. One of your patients needs you. And I've seen how productive a button that is to push. Besides which, you have no need to fear that I am plotting your demise."
    "Oh, this I've got to hear. Why should I not, Callow?"
    "Why Doctor Weldon, you'd be of no use to me dead."
    "You're a complete bastard, Callow."
    "My mother took an absolute delight in telling me so, Doctor Weldon, all through my youth. Or was that a professional diagnosis? In any case, you have an appointment at Langley in three hours. Here are all the papers you'll need to get into Langley. And a Nightwatch identity card."
    "No secret decoder ring? I'm heartbroken."
    "How droll. Report to Doctor Fanshaw, she'll be expecting you."

Year Two, February:
Stupefyin' Jones
[I Put A Spell On You]

2:09 PM, February 25th

    After a tedious, but picturesque drive out to the Langley center, Tom found the CIA security arrangements to be enlightening. He surrendered his black overcoat and stocking cap in the main lobby. He saw them shut into a storage locker, and was handed the key and a pass card. Afterwards, he was run through metal detectors on three separate occasions, hand-held scanned for bugs twice, his massive Wild Turkey belt buckle being passed through a desk-top X-Ray machine, his papers and card inspected countless times... And all he saw of the place as he was led ever deeper into the complex by a series of equally untalkative guides, were waiting rooms, long cool hallways, and many closed office doors. Sound was deadened- everything seemed hushed. Finally, Tom was guided even deeper into the complex. His last guide wordlessly left him at a plain white door with a simple brass nameplate reading "Doctor Miranda Fanshaw, CMO, Advanced Research". He knocked.
    "Come in," he heard.
   Miranda Fanshaw was not quite the sort of doctor that Tom had been expecting to meet. For one thing, she was over six feet tall. For another, she had a figure that no lab coat could hope to disguise. And although lab coats and figures kind of go together in a general sort of way, this was obviously not the sort of mathematical figure that anyone would usually associate with a lab coat. Unless the one doing the associating was a particularly lecherous Lab Assistant. Then there was her hair... And her eyes... And her perfume... And her eyes... A man could get lost in those eyes...

    "Well," she said after a protracted silence. "Have you seen enough yet? Or are you going to request a copy of my eight-by-ten glossies?"
    "Seems to me," Tom began in his therapist voice, "that you would have had a lifetime to get used to men ogling you- if you'll forgive the observation. You can't have grown up ignorant of your obvious beauty. However," he continued in his normal voice, "I plead special circumstances. I rarely meet women of my height.Your eyes are nearly level with mine, and you're not wearing high heels. I looked."
    "Hmmm, extra points for having an original line, Doctor Weldon," she said skeptically as she sat down behind her desk and gestured for Tom to take a seat also.
    "Mister, please. Or just Tom. I'm the only man with a doctorate you'll ever meet who loathes that title.  Too pretentious sounding for me. You're the Doctor around here," Tom said as he sank into the plush leather chair. "I'm just here to be fitted for a space suit and to be trained to use it. I'm not even curious as to why I was sent here instead of to NASA or an Air Force base." Nice office. Not too crowded, not too impersonal... he thought. Cool photos... Jets, rockets, astronauts...
    "Because of Miss Schlesinger, your patient."
    "I never knew she was a pilot. I knew she was ex-military, but she never discussed that. She told me she was a truck driver."
    "Not much difference. You take a load somewhere and drop it off, then come back for more. A lot of pilots refer to their jobs by some kind of joking reference like that. My dad always did. Plus, it wasn't always fighter-bombers that Miss Schlesinger was flying." Dr. Fanshaw opened a file and cringed.  "Of course, she has made several maneuvers that C-5s were never designed to make..."
    "Ah. I see," Tom spoke.  "Not only did she make deliveries, but she sometimes indulged in a little photography as a hobby. So to speak. Hence the CIA interest?"

    "I can see why you were selected for this, Mr. Weldon."
    "Why? Because someone higher up wants me dead?"
    "Hmmm... That too," she said.  "I spoke to Mr. Callow, and he recommended you a little too enthusiastically. But yes, our Miss Schlesinger occasionally flew Photo-Recon missions for the CIA after she retired from the Air Force. Naturally, they couldn't let her tell her therapist about her little excursions. Even I don't what she was doing."  Fanshaw held up Schlesinger's file and pointed to the blacked out areas.  "You weren't in the need-to-know loop, and neither am I. She was under orders to keep those details secret. And just as naturally, they're going to want to keep a tight lid on anything you learn that pertains to them. You have been drafted, so to speak. And when all of this is over and done with, they'll be keeping an eye on you. To protect their interests, their secrets."
    "I had assumed as much," Tom said. "But on the other hand, this will put a whole new spin on the old Neighborhood Watch," Tom absently said as he glanced again at the photos adorning the cream colored walls of Dr. Fanshaw's office. He noted the matching filing cabinets and the crowded bookshelves- and for the first time noticed that the computer on the workstation behind her desk was tinted a shocking turquoise blue. An open Laptop, sitting next to the blue desktop computer, seemed to be displaying a chatroom program, but it was too far away for him to read.
    "Funny, Mr. Weldon. You're not going to have time for jokes in the foreseeable future.You have far too much to do today- We both do, actually. But for you, your training begins now. You are going to be far too busy in the foreseeable future to waste any more time."  She swiveled in her chair and grabbed another file from a table.  "I wish
I could get you to take this more seriously. You haven't the faintest idea what you're going to up against.  I'm going to have to train you to stay alive against all odds. I doubt that you're going to make that easy for me."
    "What's the first thing on the schedule, then?" Tom asked, dragging his attention fully back to Dr. Fanshaw.
    "You're going to have to be measured for your space suit today, Mr. Weldon."
    "Well, I can give you my tux size-"
    "This will be a little different from a trip to the tailor. Relax, its all done by a machine now. As soon as they're ready for us, we will go down the hall to a laser scanning lab-"
    "You're going to read me like a bar code. But in 3-d."
    "Very good, Mr. Weldon," Fanshaw said, and though her demeanor was still quite serious, there was a slight twinkle in her eye. "That's exactly what we're going to do."  A chime rang out from the turquoise computer.  "Ah, they're ready. Now come with me and take off all your clothes."
    "On our first date? I thought you'd never ask. But we haven't even had dinner yet."
    "Very funny," she said as she led Tom out of her office and down the hallway towards what he presumed to be the scanning lab.
    "Why is it I get the feeling," Tom sighed, "that being asked to get naked by you is not necessarily a good thing at this juncture?"
    "Is that a rhetorical question, Mr. Weldon?"
    "And how many people am I going to have to be naked in front of?"
    "Three. Myself and two technicians. And they will be looking at computer monitors. Relax. I have a distant cousin who is a porn actress. She tells me that after the first few minutes, the discomfort wears off."
    "I'm almost certain that she wasn't speaking merely of the nudity."
    Dr. Fanshaw giggled, the tension finally breaking. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
    "So you do have a sense of humor. I was starting to wonder," Tom said as they reached the door to the scanning lab. "How long is this going to take?"
    "It'll be over before you know it. And it won't hurt a bit."
    "Did they teach you those lies in medical school? Every doctor tells the same ones."

    Big room- I like that, Tom thought as he re-entered the scanner lab from it's private restroom, his black shirt, pants, and other clothing clutched in one large hand.  Sort of empty, too. That platform over there must be the scanner itself. Don't see a chair... "Where do I put my clothes? And where do I sit for the scanner? I assume that this is going to take some time."
    "The quicker you do what I tell you, the quicker you'll be able to put your clothes back on. My, you do like working out, don't you?"
    "I used to be a little, skinny guy. I got tired of that and changed it. Hard work, exercise, healthy eating... What do I do now? Offer you my eight-by-ten glossies?"
    "Put your clothes in that basket," Dr. Fanshaw said as she gestured towards a small wire hamper that sat atop a perfectly ordinary operating room roller-table nearby.
    "Just like at the pool," Tom said. "Now what?"
    "Step up on this dais. This is the scanner itself. When we get you strapped in, a ring will rise up out of the floor and the lasers will be focused on your body from the ring. It'll measure your three dimensional cross section from your ankles to your wrists. Put your feet in these boots and Velcro them shut tightly."
    "Boots? They're more like stiff felt socks." Or Peter Pan slippers...
    "Those will not only anchor your feet while the laser scans you, but they will measure your feet as precisely as the laser would. The data fits together seamlessly in the program files."  Tom, rather reluctantly, did as he was asked.  "Good, now put on those gloves."
    "Why do they have cables going up to the roof?"
    "All the better to stretch you with, my dear. Rather like a space-age rack. It won't be tight enough to hurt, just to flex your body to it's full extension."
    "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me..." Tom muttered under his breath.
    "Maybe we do have something in common after all."  Tom arched his eyebrows, unsure whether Dr. Fanshaw was making a joke or revealing a hitherto hidden aspect of her personality.  "Now, the gloves will measure your hands- just like the boots will for your feet."
    "While stretching me out like something from the Spanish Inquisition-"
    "No one expects the Spanish Inquisi-tion!"
    "Doctor, I think I'm beginning to like your style."
    "Cute," she said sarcastically. Then she turned to the technicians who sat facing away from the scanner at a console on the far side of the room. "All right, stretch him out. Start the laser. Let's get this done right the first time. This will take about five minutes," she added as she turned back to face Tom. "Tell me if the cables are too tight."
    "No, actually it feels rather like something a gym would charge you a hundred bucks an hour for, and then send you off to a free sauna. But it is embarrassing."
    "If it's any comfort to you, you look damn good."  Tom felt himself blush lightly.
    "Why thank you, Madam. I owe it all to clean living."
    "Please remain still in all aspects of your physiognomy," one of the technicians said dryly.
    "Silly boy," Fanshaw spoke and she smiled widely.
    "Can you answer one question?"
    "As long as it isn't about my cousin. Or her phone number."
    "Um, no. I wanted to ask what is that perfume you're wearing?"
    "It's called Obsession," she said as she shyly glanced towards the floor.  "It isn't all that expensive, and I like the scent."
    "I can understand the name. I don't think I'll ever forget that scent." Or you.
    "Done with the legs," one of the techs called out from across the room. "Starting on the torso now..."
    "'Slowly, slowly... It's too nice a job to rush,'" Dr. Fanshaw quoted with a broad smile.
    First she quotes Monty Python and now lines from Rocky Horror Picture Show? Tom thought. And she has the nerve to scold me about my own jokes? This woman gets more interesting by the minute. What will she do next, I wonder? Never mind the fact that she's drop-dead gorgeous- she's got a brain and isn't afraid to use it... And she's my size! Fascinating woman! Those eyes are hypnotic.
"All right, Tom. Take a really deep breath, and hold it. As deep and as long as you can. We'll need your maximum chest expansion for your suit tailoring to fit right. Your life will depend on your suit."
    "'K," Tom replied, filling his lungs as deeply as he could and holding his breath.
    The ring of laser light continued to ascend Tom's body.

    "We'll have to make some adjustments and repeat the procedure."
    "For heaven's sake, why?" Fanshaw said- almost petulantly.
    "The reading came out 'Off-Scale, High' Dr. Fanshaw."
    "What? Let me see that..."
    "I'll just- just wait right here. Shall I?" Tom helplessly called after Dr. Fanshaw's rapidly retreating back.
    "Yes, you just hang tight, Adonis," Dr. Fanshaw said absently as she walked over to the tech's console. "Now what is this nonsense? How can it read off-scale? Let me see the begin-run data entries. There has got to be a typo... D'oh! You keyed in his mass at 21 pounds! Reset it to 210 and run the calculations again. Pay attention, Debbie."
    "Oh, Sweet Mistress of Pain?" Tom called from across the room. "Can I put my clothes back on now?"
    "Oh yes, I forgot. Yes, Captain Lockheed. You can get out of the gloves and boots now and get dressed. We won't have to run it again after all. There'll be a uniform waiting for you in the locker room at the end of the hall. Your Starfighter will be ready momentarily..."
    Oh, lovely, Tom thought. Her personality fluctuates between all business and downright playful. That could be trouble. Bi-Polar? Or just flaky? But she does know her stuff. Nobody gets to be CMO for Langley's own private air force without being damned well qualified. I wonder who was standing around when she got measured for a suit. Woah! Not the right time to engage in those types of speculations, old boy. Finish putting your pants on Weldon, at least. Sheesh.
"Having trouble, Tom?" Miranda looked back over her shoulder at Tom's back as he fumbled with his pants and shirt-tail.
    "I was just thinking that you could market that thing as a home tanning salon," Tom evasively replied over his shoulder, while zipping his pants. "Its a little tame for the S&M crowd. I've got a couple of patients who'd love it for their autoerotic asphyxiation experiments, though."  Tom looked up innocently.  "Am I going to have a sunburn from that gadget?"
    Miranda giggled again, then shifted once more to all-business mode. "No, the laser isn't nearly bright enough for that. You haven't been harmed," she said, then frowned. "You know, your sense of humor could get you killed out there, Doctor Weldon. I suggest that you rein it in, for now. What we're about to do could mean the difference between living and dieing out there. What? No wisecracks?"
    "I'm restraining myself with difficulty," Tom said sarcastically- thinking all the while that the scanning system would make restraining himself easier. "After all, it is my life we're talking about. Seriously Doctor, I understand the-"
    "Gravity of the situation? You weren't actually going to perpetrate that pun, were you?"
    "Certainly not," Tom lied with a straight face. "I was going to say that I understood the difficulties of turning me into an astronaut."
    "Un-huh," she replied disbelievingly. "Well... I'm afraid that you have at least one more shock coming to you today, Mr. Weldon."
    "Oh? And what would that be?" Tom asked cautiously.
    Dr. Fanshaw looked him over from head to toe, then frowned once more- as if at his taste in clothing. "Spacesuits," she finally said, as if she were addressing a small child. "Do not come in black..."

    "Listen, Mr. Weldon," Miranda began, after they had returned to her office. "This isn't going to be pleasant, but there are some, um, realities you'll have to deal with in space.  This," she said while holding up a plastic bag, "is the closest to a lavatory you'll see for the next few months.  The waste management system on your ship wasn't completely designed before we had to give up and finish construction."  She held the bag up higher to complete the point.  "And in a spacesuit, if you do anything wrong you'll wind up dead. Anything you forget about can kill you. Anything you leave behind can kill you. Anything you take with you that doesn't work right can kill you. Anything you take with you that breaks down can kill you. Anything that breaks down that you can't fix on the spot can kill you. And even if everything goes right, you can still get killed by something you've overlooked. I am supposed to give you a crash course in everything you'll need to know about your spacesuit in order to stay alive."
    Back to 'Mr. Weldon' now, are we? She's gone all business on me again. "Crash course? Not the sort of thing a fledgling astronaut wants to hear on his first day of training."
    "Get the comedy out of your system, now. Once your training starts, you won't have time for it. I can promise you that. You'll be here two to four days every week until you lift off. You'll spend eight or more--probably many more-- hours a day here, training to keep yourself alive. If you come back in one piece, it'll be a miracle."
    "I put myself in your hands. Which ought to be safe enough, now that I have my clothes back on again."
    "You big lug! You better listen up or you're going to come back to me in a box!"
    Come back to me? "Yes Ma'am. I'm listening." This got deep, quick. But at least I know that she thinks of me as more than just an assignment. "I'm counting on you to keep me alive. Er, to teach me how to stay alive. I'll pay attention, never fear."
    "The suits for this mission are something special. Something that we've been working on for years. They're thinner, lighter, and more flexible than the standard NASA mission suits."
    "And completely untested in actual flight conditions, I suppose," Tom said under his breath.  Fanshaw cleared her throat and continued.
    "They'll be far more comfortable, and the inner layer can stand up to frequent launderings. Needless to say, body odor is a significant psychological problem on extended missions. We've also done away with the need to glue on, or insert, medical probes and monitors. The inner layer has skin contact monitors woven into the fabric. All the wiring for the inner layer plugs in at the wrists, ankles, and the neck-ring of the outer layer. You can disconnect the plugs at those five points, and then pull the inner layer out through the neck-ring. Like I said, you can wash it every day, if you want. Won't hurt it."
    "Waste management system incomplete," Tom said with a deadpan expression, "but the Chinese laundry made it onboard intact."
    "Pay attention, 007," Fanshaw said, but her near smile was quickly buried.  "There is a middle layer made of a special foamed plastic that is the real workhorse of the suit. It is bonded to the outer layer and contains all the microprocessors, wiring, and circuitry necessary, scattered throughout the foam material of the layer. This gets rid of all that clumsy bulk of carrying most of the gear that used to have to be attached to the outside of the old-style suits. The outer layer is actually three layers of Kevlar, one layer of special metallic foil- to block most radiation, and seven layers of a specially formulated silicone-latex sealer, bonded together into a flexible, but extremely tough airtight fabric. There are over-sized keypads on hard plastic inserts set into the suit's forearms and chest areas, to access the onboard computer components scattered about in the middle layer. There are also controls around the suit's neck-ring and on the sides of the helmet. Hook-ups to the oxygen tanks have been greatly simplified. Each full tank should last six hours. Your suit can normally be able to hook up to two of those six-hour tanks, but there is emergency equipment in the suit's outside-left shin zipper pocket that will allow for either the attachment of up to four extra tanks, or three extra tanks and buddy-breathing with another astronaut. Always check your tank pressure before hitting vacuum. Always check your tank pressure whenever you put your suit on. Always replace your used tanks with full ones after every EVA. Always keep your suit ready to save your life, at all times."
    "Yes Ma'am. I understand. I take it that practice sessions with the equipment will be a great fraction of the training."
    "That is correct. When I'm through with you, you'll be able to wake up out of a sound sleep, dive out of bed, and get your suit on in mere seconds. Probably without fully waking up- If I do my job right... If I do my job wrong, you just wake up dead."
    "I see."
    "No jokes? Are you feeling ill?"
    "No Doctor. I'm feeling like throttling the life out of Ian Callow, but I've felt that urge many times over the last few years. I haven't had the need to act on it, though." Yet. "I am trying to follow you as best as I can. It'll be easier when I have the suit in hand. Until it gets finished, I'll store the lectures away as background material, for later use. Everything you tell me now will give me a head start when I actually have the suit to train in."
    "Very good, Weldon. There's hope for you yet. Now, about the sanitary arrangements. We've done away with catheters for the urinary tract."
    "For that. I thank you. Seriously."
    "Yes, well... Don't thank me yet. I've been working on the women's version, myself. I really hate the NASA design. The ladies all call it 'the sandbox.' The new men's design has been described as a 'condom with a hose attached', plus two rubber bands to hold it in place. There are three valves in the system. One is a back-up and can be used to isolate the system in case of failure of the other two valves. If all three valves are open at the same time, you bleed to death. Quickly. Graphically. Painfully... Never open more than one valve at a time. The bag is housed in a thigh pocket.  In an extreme emergency, you can use the half-gallon or so of urine in the bag as a low-powered reaction motor for a small amount of thrust- Which is why the outermost valve works more like the nozzle of a garden hose..."
     Tom smiled but looked genuinely worried.  "I'm not getting anywhere near the recommended amount of training time, am I."  Fanshaw stood expressionless before him, and then she looked down at the files on her desk.

Year Two, March:

Missing Persons
[Agents of Fortune]

1:17 PM, March 1st

     Stephanie Keel knocked on Simon's office door. At his indistinct, grunted reply, she went in to find him pacing about the room- reading a report. He looked up once he saw whom his visitor was.
    "Hello, Stephanie. What's on your mind?"
    "Tom," she said.  "I haven't seen him for over a week. He's canceled most of his appointments. Or re-directed other patients to the doctors that he asks to cover for his vacations. But this time, indefinitely."
    "Tom just...vanishes...sometimes.  You know that.  God knows what he's doing half the time."  Simon looked down at the report.  "Have you gotten snoopy yet?"
    "Simon!" Stephanie spoke indignantly.  "I'm amazed at your insinuations of impropriety on my part," Stephanie rolled her eyes. "Of course I've snooped around a bit. But there's only so much I could find- even with the best search-bot program I could write! What I found was he'd been checking into a lab at CIA Langley a lot lately. Starting right after a meeting with Callow, no less."
    "That bodes ill for Tom," Simon replied. "Callow has his holds over all of us." Simon lowered the report.  "And whatever skeletons are in Tom's closet- Callow must have hunted them down ages ago. Even the ones that we don't know about yet."
    "This is some serious shit, Simon..."
    "How alliterative of you, Stephanie."  Simon dropped the report on his desk and sat down, massaging his fingers as he did.  "But all humor aside- you've got me damned worried about Tom. If Callow has his claws into him, there's no telling what risks he's running."
    "How can we help him? We can't just walk up into Langley Center and ask for him at the Information Desk."
    "I'd go beard Callow in his Den," Simon said, "but it'd probably only get me shouted at. Same goes for you. Hmm, we need to think of something sneaky..."
    "That's why I came to you," Stephanie said.  "I need to brainstorm some way out of this tangled web."
    "Well, there is one last-ditch, long-shot chance that may be able to clear up the mystery."
    "What's that?"
    "We could just ask Tom what the hell is going on, couldn't we?"  Simon asked reasonably. Stephanie blinked and then held her face in her hands.
    "Simon," Stephanie sighed in annoyance, then she spoke sarcastically. "You have a positive talent for slicing through the bullshit, you know? How do we reach Tom to ask him? Smart-ass..."

    "Hmm..." Simon thought for a long moment. Then he stood straighter and snapped his fingers. "Of course! Surprised that you didn't think of it."
    "We need to ask Zod."
    Stephanie blinked twice, started giggling, then leaned back against one of the walls of Simon's office and began laughing out loud. Within moments, she had slowly slid to a sitting position on the floor, rocking back and forth, helpless with laughter. Simon flopped back into his chair, giggling inanely as well. After a few moments of shared hilarity, they each recovered and moved as one towards Simon's office computer. Stephanie sat down and called up the chatroom program. Instead of joining a channel once she had connected to the Internet server substation, however- she typed "/whereis Zod \?/  /-i/+s/n/b/+t/+msg  /?? \\ URGENT \\ Priority One"
    Before the chat server computer even had a chance to answer her query, a private chat window popped up on the screen.
@Zod: "Ms. Keel? Am I needed?" Hello, Dr. Litchfield. I gather that the two of you want to sent a private message to Dr. Weldon?
Stephanie_Keel: How did you know that? And that Simon was here too?
@Zod: Your  web-spider was very specific about Dr. Weldon. And you are using Dr. Litchfield's office computer now.
Stephanie_Keel: What has Ian Callow done with Tom?
@Zod: Dr. Weldon has been recruited to accompany one of his patients out to the comet. He will be training for the mission for some time. He is still reachable through his private e-mail account. In an extreme emergency, I can patch you through to the communications system of his spacesuit. Warning: Probability of such communication remaining undetected is less than 68.2573%


    "His," Simon started.
    "Spacesuit?" Stephanie added.
    "Shall we go yell at Callow together, Stephanie?"
    "That would be fun," she said, "but I doubt that it would make anything any better. I've got a better idea. Let's go try and catch Tom as he comes home this evening."
    "Yes," Simon answered after a short pause. "That would be more productive. But we'll have to figure on his having CIA watchers now."
    "Oh, come on! That's the best part, Simon."
    "Oh? How so?"
    "A report will have to get back to Callow- Probably before the night is out..." Her face lit up as she started laughing again.  "Imagine the look on his aggravated little face when he finds out that we know. And just let him wonder how we found out!"
    Simon threw back his head and laughed. "Thank you. I needed that," he said after a long few moments. "Go get your stuff, I'll meet you in the garage."
    Stephanie dashed out of Simon's office and headed for her own. Simon grabbed his raincoat and a hat from his coat tree by his office door. He paused before he closed the door, looked across the room at his computer, and said "Thank you for everything, Zod. You'd make an excellent Butler, you know?" I'm acting as if he could hear me, Simon thought, shaking his head. I'm slipping. Then he closed the door and quickly walked to meet Stephanie.
"Oh, I am all things to all people-- but you are quite welcome Dr. Litchfield..." came a smooth, cultured voice from out of the speakers of Simon's office computer, moments later. No one was there to hear the voice, but then again, that might just have been the point.

Year Two, March:
Lancelot's Dilemma
[You Are What You Is]

1:12 AM, March 2nd

Forty eight hours of this, in only four days, Tom thought as he walked the increasingly familiar path from the training room to Dr. Fanshaw's office. Next week they're gonna put me in a swimming pool and do some simple astronaut training stuff. Wearing that suit feels funky, like a leotard. I keep looking down and expecting to see a tu-tu instead of a tool-belt. Good, Miranda's door's open. She's still here. I wish-
At the sound of something crashing to the floor in Miranda's office, Tom broke into a run for the last few yards. He stopped short in the doorway, catching on to the frame with both hands. The room wasn't in total disarray, but it damn sure came close. Miranda was on her knees in the middle of the floor picking up a fallen stack of files that had obviously knocked a floor lamp over.
    "Shit," Miranda said to herself, her back to Tom. "Shit, shit... I knew that was going to fall over. OK, ok, just clean it up. Clean it up..."
    "Miranda?" Tom said quietly.
    "Oh shit!" she squealed as she turned to look over her shoulder at Tom. "You scared me. What- what do you want? It's late. Its late."
    "I'm through with my session for the day. You were acting a little flaky this afternoon and I wanted to check up on you. What happened? What are you doing?"
    "I- I started cleaning up," she said. "Just a little bit, just to take my mind off things. Then I decided to redecorate a little. Then I decided to re-do my files... and this lot fell over. And the lamp broke. That was one that Daddy gave me when I first left home for college. It's OK. Shit. Ok, ok... Shit... OK-- Oh, ok..." she was looking from side to side as she spoke, focusing on different parts of the mess at one time. Chairs pushed back, filing cabinets half empty- their drawers all hanging open, her desk slid sideways and files stacked high up on it, the broken glass from the lamp's light bulb scattered across the floor...
    "Are you alright?" Tom asked.
    "Yeah, sure. I'm OK. I'm fine. OK... ok, shit..."
    "Did something happen?" Tom asked, concern written plain across his face. "Is your family alright?"
    "I've been so busy, so busy..." Miranda said as she got up from the floor. "Everything needs to be finalized now. There's no time for testing, no time to be sure. No time... I've been so busy. And then you came along. I've got no time for this. There's no time. Everything has to be finished at once. Right now..."
    "Miranda? Miranda!" Tom spoke sharply as he crossed from the doorway and took Dr. Fanshaw by the arms before she could step on the broken glass. "Have you forgotten to take your medication? Miranda, listen to me. When was the last time you took your medicine?"
    "What?" she answered. "No, I always... But I've so busy- did I forget? I've been so scared..."
    "Scared? Scared of what, Miranda?"
    "No- can't say. Can't-- say..."
    "Do you have your medicine here?" Tom asked gently, looking into her eyes. "In your desk? Or in your purse, maybe?"
    "Center drawer of my desk. Back left corner. Behind the bag of cough drops..." Miranda answered mechanically, still casting glances about the wreckage of her office. She took several deep breaths and seemed to come back to a somewhat calmer state. "You're right, you're right. I did forget. Did forget. Sometimes-- I wish I could just-"
    "No!" Tom almost shouted. "No. Don't even go there. Don't ever go there. I-- I'm going to be here for you." The catch in his voice went almost unnoticed. Almost. "I'm going to be here for you. I promise." He quickly found the two different prescriptions, just where Miranda said that they'd be, and also fetched her a cup of water from the cooler near her coffee pot.
    "It'll be tomorrow before this stuff gets fully metabolized," Miranda said after she gulped down two of the pills.
    "I know," Tom said gently. "How are you feeling now?"
    "Better," she said. "Now that you're here. But I'm scared, too."
    "Scared of what?" Tom asked soothingly.
    "Scared you're gonna die. Scared it'll be my fault because I didn't teach you enough, or I'm not good enough to teach..." The words came out in a rush.
    "Woah, woah..." Tom could feel his heart melting and his professional ethics shouting alarms at the same time. With a vicious mental swipe, he pushed everything else into the back of his mind and focused on Dr. Fanshaw. She needed help, he was here, he had the training... But you love her, too. Don't you? Admit it. That's why you can't treat her. That wouldn't be right. But you can be there for her until the fear goes away. She needs you.
"You got too quiet," she said, wiping away a tear. "Did I scare you off?"
    "No, you didn't. But I can't offer to treat you."
    "Why not?" she asked, as if pushing for confirmation of what her heart had already told her.
    "Because I can't be your doctor. I'm too close. You mean too much- I mean..."
    She looked him in the eyes, and her eyes were crystal depths, endless, straight through to her soul. He felt lost, yet not alone. Warm, comforted, and totally head over heels. "Tell me," she whispered. "I need to know."
    "I can't offer to treat you-- because I- I love you," Tom finally said. "The best I can do- as a doctor -is nag you about your prescriptions. It wouldn't be ethical for me to do anything more. And you know it."
    "There is one ethical thing you can do that I need right now," she said quietly, looking down at the floor as if she were ashamed, or embarrassed.
    "What's that?"
    "Hold me," she said as she looked back into his eyes and reached out to him, like a frightened child.
    "Forever," he replied as he wrapped his arms around her. And he knew at that moment that he meant it- literally.

Year Two, March:
Boot Cramp Training
[Diamond Dogs]

4:25 AM, March 7th

    An exhausted Tom Weldon floated near the middle of a deep pool of water, struggling with a boxed-end wrench and a recalcitrant hex-head bolt. The fingers of his new spacesuit gloves were making him just slightly more clumsy than the zero-g effect caused by being under water. Five other trainees floated nearby, their breathing and muttered curses quietly audible in the headset of Tom's suit. The smell of his own sweat was starting to get on his nerves. Time to run the liner through the wash again, he thought. Damn, six hours of this is beginning to wear me out. This has been a tough week.
    "Hey," came a voice in Tom's headset. "I've got a warning light going off..."
    "Me too," answered a second voice.
    Tom sighed tiredly. Looking out through his helmet into the crystal-blue water outside his suit, he sighed again and stowed his wrench back into his tool pouch. "Didn't you two check your tank pressure when you put your suits on?" Tom asked.
    "Aren't the techs supposed to do that?"
    "Always check your own gear," Tom replied angrily. "Never depend on someone else to check it. You check it, yourself! Every time. You two should know that all ready. Now you're going to have to climb down to the supply cart and hook up replacement air tanks."
    "I'm not really good at that yet, Doc," came the answer.
    "TOM," he yelled.  "Not Doc!" Do I get extra credit for becoming a Teaching Assistant? Tom thought while turning himself to face the two slackers. "OK, I'll run you through the drill one more time. You better get good, soon. Next week we start training with the lights out. You'll have to learn how to do this in the dark- except for your suit lights. Anyone else need a recharge? While we're at it?" Tom glanced quickly at the instrument display inside his own helmet. I've still got twenty minutes supply left on my first tank. Second tank- still full... The safety check was quickly becoming second nature to him. "OK, follow me and attach your spare lifeline to the tether down to the supply cart, then disconnect your primary lifeline from your work station tether. Now, climb down the rope-" 'Cause the elevator's broke-- Damn it! Quit daydreaming, Weldon! Lives depend on you... "-and attach your primary lifeline to a tether on the cart..."
    And the training continued.

Year Two, March:
The Pit and the Pendulum
[All My Rowdy Friends...]

11:25 AM, March 10th

    Simon and a military officer entered an observation area, a guard outside the door saluting crisply.  The officer returned the salute.  The door slammed shut as the two of them walked over to the window.
    "Down there," General Welles Graham said as he pointed to a large water tank, "is where your Doctor Weldon is being trained.  We have the best working with him, working with all of them."  Sure enough, at the moment Tom and his fully suited comrades entered the area and prepared to take the plunge.  Graham turned on a coffee maker and also activated several computer monitors.  Finally, he pressed a comm button mounted on the wall.  "Graham in Sector 8."
    "This part of Langley isn't on the tour route, is it," Simon said.
    "No," Graham said.  "You were lucky Nightwatch has connections, and that Doctor Weldon personally vouched for you."  Graham walked over and stood by the window.  "They have a very daunting task in front of them, Doctor Litchfield."
    "I don't envy them," Simon spoke, and then he reconsidered.  "Well, not much, anyway.  Space flight does have some allure, I must admit."
    "Have you seen the plans for the carrier ships?"
    "I have indeed," Simon spoke. "From a Civil Engineering standpoint, I've got to admire your hutzpah. I can't imagine how many launches it'll take to send up all of the modules."
    "Too many for comfort," General Graham said. "Fortunately, it's that modular approach that made this possible from both a construction and PR spin standpoint. The assembly point behind the moon is being pushed to the brink, but a few discreet shots at a time is all it takes to put these things up."
    "I saw that they were nearly complete," Simon spoke. In the tank below the viewing area, Tom disappeared beneath the surface of the water with his training partners.
    "We won't be able to pull something like this off again," Graham said both matter-of-factly and sadly. "Not for a long time. The costs are staggering--in terms of money, in terms of effort, in terms of sacrifices made." He shook his head. "Even if we're successful, the secrecy we used to hide this will set back the reputations of countless nations. And when the people who've more or less been drafted to do the work are finally able to speak out..."
    Tom surfaced and motioned furiously at someone who had apparently offended him.
    "He'd never admit it," Simon spoke as he smiled, "but Tom's having the time of his life down there." General Graham looked over at Simon.
    "I want you to consider something, seriously," General Graham said as he motioned for Simon to sit down. Graham went to the coffee machine and poured himself a cup of coffee and then poured one for Litchfield.
    "Generals and coffee," Simon spoke as he took the cup. "That's never good."
    "We're getting ready to launch the biggest armada space has ever seen," the General said. "That's something that no one in space command, no one in NASA, no one in ESA...hell, no one anywhere could have ever planned for. Not this soon. "
    "I know that," Litchfield spoke. "You don't have to tell me about..." Graham held up his hand and then walked over to a computer touch screen. Quickly, he keyed in a series of numbers, and a live video feed appeared. After motioning for Litchfield to come look, he pointed at the people sitting around a set of consoles.
    "That's Com Team 3 at JPL," Graham said. "Five of the best communications experts in our employ." He looked over at Litchfield. "Their entire job is to work out the communications protocols for the missions." Graham looked back at the screen. "There's never been this many people in space at once. I mean, for God's sake, there's never been this many communications systems out there. The frequencies are a nightmare. And there's call signs, discussions between astronauts..." Simon looked at the people working, noting that two of the team members, mirroring what was also happening in the pool, were apparently involved in a heated argument.
    "I take your point."
    "On top of that," Graham continued as he watched the argument, "Canaveral, Vandenberg, Kodiak Island, Hildago's offshore launch platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, inside a dozen of our nuclear subs- at every spaceport under US control... We are loaded down with equipment. New, old, ancient. Dr. Litchfield, I've got an Atlas on the pad in California, and I'm not talking about one of the new models fresh off of Lockheed's assembly line. I'm talking a John Glenn era, stage and a half, structure kept rigid by the fuel pressure Atlas. Sitting on top of that is one of the X-15s that SE has modified for space." Graham looked down and sipped his coffee. "You think any of my people really know how to handle something that old?"
    Simon reached over and patted the general's shoulder. "Believe it or not, I do have faith in your people's abilities. If nothing else, your PR department is brilliant! So much out in the open and yet completely unnoticed..."
    "You're missing the point, doctor," Graham interrupted.
    "Am I?"
    "Any space launch is planned out months, sometimes years in advance," Graham said. "Trajectories, G- loads, wind shear protocols, points of no return for each and every section of a mission profile... Every variable of a given launch... Everything is checked and rechecked and tripled checked and certified and checked again." The general laughed and looked towards the ceiling. "Even with so much handled electronically, there are still warehouses tasked with nothing but the storage of paper trails.  Throw manned flight into the mix, and the planning stretches out twice as far. Even with our military missions, the planning and vetting process goes on for quite awhile." Graham looked at Simon intently. "Outside of rudimentary sketches, there is none of that involved here. There's been no time. Those carrier ships, the center piece of the whole operation, are completely untested.  Those NERVA engines. No one has any idea how they'll operate under flight conditions. Those micro-fusion afterburners- pure science fiction. I don't even understand the physics. They work, but I couldn't tell you why. The people at SE, and Quest, and HIT may be geniuses, but up there we're improvising, making up 80% of it as we go along." Graham sat down again. "Dr. Litchfield, whether or not the mission succeeds, people will die. You can't throw this much hardware up, this many people up, without casualties. It is a statistical impossibility...even if we'd had more time to plan."
    "So," Simon spoke solemnly, "what are you telling me?"
    Graham put down his coffee and looked Simon straight in the eye. "When your friend, Mr. Weldon, leaves to start his quarantine, leave nothing unsaid. Do you read me?"

Year Two, March:
If I Had A Hammer
[Another Brick In The Wall]

11:40 PM, March 10th

    Towers of steel beams reach skyward in gantry frames as ships are constructed to take the fight to the comet. Work crews scurry like bees in frenzied activity. Quickly, each new rocket ship takes shape. Around the world, humanity's hopes unknowingly garner reinforcement as every completed rocket gets shipped to a launch site. Small supply rockets are being regularly launched from land bases and submarines, for the expedition to overtake and intercept on the voyage. Hidden behind the moon, assembly of the expedition's carrier ships proceeds. Recruiting for the expedition's varied crew is also carried out under the public's collective noses. The official story of "practicing" in order to prepare for a "real threat" effectively hides much of the preparations for the expedition. Completed smaller ships are launched, to be stowed in the finished compartments of the carriers that orbit serenely above the bustle of Earth's surface. The battleship-sized cylindrically-shaped carrier ships take form slowly- at least when the Media is about to ask questions about the modular creations noticed on certain factory floors.
    The huge Tesla Beam generators are built into their own ships. The shadow of Earth's moon hides the welding flares of the workmen in this secret assembly yard. Occasional flashes from the worker's arc welders throw the submarine-sized flashlight shapes of each giant weapon into stark relief. With each seam welded, Earth's future safety seemingly becomes more and more secure.
    But time is still limited. The rush to save the planet proceeds apace, albeit yet in secrecy.
    Yet, from time to time more than one workman pauses his or her efforts, in order to contemplate one slight puzzle. What the hell are we going to do with these damn things once the comet is out of the way? What bloody government on the planet can be trusted to own even one of these buggers and not use it? They all think such things to themselves while working. What's to keep some bastard from using one to try and rule the world? Doesn't signify, most of the construction crew individually concluded in the end. Save the world now, kill any power-hungry bastards later. One job at a time. First, save the world. Then we can take time to deal with the idiots that'll spring up to take advantage of the situation. Politics. I hate it... Shit, got to get this hull plate welded in before shift change, or the supervisor is gonna crawl my ass. Back to work...

Year Two, April:
The Events of:
Death Valley

Year Two, May:
Launch Day
[I'll See You On The Dark Side Of The Moon]

9:02 AM, May 15th

    Tele-Prompter Text of the US president's speech to the UN:

 "Ladies and Gentlemen...
 representatives of all people
 of every nation on Earth...
 We few are gathered here today
 to honor those who will begin the task
 of keeping our fragile planet safe from the threat
 of catastrophic impact from objects from space.
 We stand here,
 as one world,
 against the threats
 that the unknowable future can hold.
 we take the first steps
 to preserve all our futures
 against a common cosmic threat.
 These three hundred brave souls
 that we honor here today,
 are but the first of many generations
 of swords against the darkness
 that we,
 as a planet united,
 have decided to field
 against the great unknown
 that is our neighborhood in space.
 We, as a people,
 have been given a unique opportunity
 to learn the skills that will become necessary
 to ensure our world's continued survival
 against the direst threats
 that a hostile universe
 can throw at us.
 These brave people have joined together-
 without thought of personal differences,
 political leanings,
 or religious beliefs
 -to learn how to safeguard the Earth
 from interplanetary destruction.
 They will become
 our shields against the cosmic threats,
 our swords against the silent enemy
 lurking in the darkness.
 They are our protection,
 and our insurance that there will always be
 a future for all our children.
 We humans of Planet Earth,
 we are not dinosaurs.
 We have made the choice to fight back!
 We choose to defend our world
 against the slings and arrows
 that a hostile universe
 may hold in store.
 We will learn the skills- now,
 while we still have time.
 We choose to do this,
 not because it is easy-
 because it will not be easy.
 Not to prove that we are
 ready for the task-
 because we are manifestly not yet ready.
 But we undertake this great task
 for one simple reason.
 Because our children's lives
 depend on what we do today.
 There have been many names proposed for this-
 this army of intrepid individuals
 that choose to protect us
 against the dangers of the night.
 If I listened to the back rooms of countless
 science and space centers,
 we'd have to either call them Star Fleet-
 Yes, yes, I laughed too, but the people who proposed it were serious--
 Or we'd have to call them Thunderbirds...
 Yes, I know... Even my wife, Evelyn thought that was cute, too.
 Thankfully, since both terms are copyrighted,
 we were able to come up with an alternative
 that wouldn't have the lawyers drooling one day,
 God willing...
 Ladies and Gentleman of planet Earth,
 I give you our guardians of the future,
 the men and women of the UN's newest division:
 Project Earth-Shield!
 Please give them a round of applause...
 They leave us today to begin their mission-
 To protect us all,
 to preserve our posterity,
 and to secure the future for all our children.
 We salute them,
 each and every one.
 They are the true definition of "Heroes."
 We wish them safe voyage,
 and swift return to this,
 our mother planet.

 Thank you very much.

 People of Planet Earth,
 one day, you will learn of the sacrifices
 so many have made so that we may live
 in peace and security, and when that day comes
 each of these individuals should be
 in your thoughts and prayers...
 and may you all be blessed as well
 in all the days of your lives."


    "Why aren't you up there with the rest of the heroes?" Simon asked as he came up on Tom Weldon in the group of diplomatic and UN onlookers. "Weren't photogenic enough, Old Man?"
    "Simon!" Tom exclaimed, shaking Simon's hand. "Glad you could make it."
    "Hey! I'm here too," Stephanie said, as she stepped out of the crowd to give Tom a hug. .
    "Thank you," Tom said. "I'm so glad that you're here. Come on. I want you to meet Miranda."
    Simon and Stephanie exchanged meaningful glances as they trailed along in Tom's wake through the crowd. On Simon's part, this consisted mostly of eyebrow waggling in lecherous semaphore. Stephanie's answering grimace eloquently spoke volumes of pain, although with the underlying meaning that Simon was the source of this particular pain, in whatever unspecified region of her anatomy, from which she was currently suffering. Within a very few steps, Tom led Simon and Stephanie to a trio of women huddled together as if in a private conference. The tallest of the three glanced up, took in the rapidly approaching Tom Weldon, and the two Nightwatch operatives he had in tow. With a curt spoken cue from her, the other two women looked up at Tom, Simon, and Stephanie. All three women smiled broadly.
    "I told you they'd be here," Tom said without preamble.
    "Yes you did," said the tallest woman. "You must be Dr. Litchfield, and Stephanie Keel I already know. Been a while, Girl. How's your welding?"
    "Good to see you again, Miranda. You've been missed on the JW circuit."
    "Nice to meet you, Dr. Fanshaw," Simon said.
    "And this is Abby, and Samantha," Tom said. "Abby is going to be my pilot. Sam's a pilot too, although on another ship."
    "Boat," Samantha corrected over her shoulder at Tom, shaking her angelically long, light brown hair out of her eyes as she shook Simon's hand in greeting. "The little ones are called boats, Tom-Tom. Nice to meet you too, Stephanie...Tom has told us so much about you both. I feel like you're already old friends." She laughed again and touched knuckles with Stephanie as she spoke.
    "I stand corrected, " Tom joked. "And the day is yet young."
    "Hi ya cutie," said the shortest woman, adjusting her baseball cap to an even more rakish angle over her short, reddish-blond fly-away hair. Her twinkling greenish-hazel eyes peering out from underneath her spiked-cut bangs as she grinned disarmingly. "I'm Abby. Doctor Tom has told me absolutely nothing about you. What are you doing for lunch? Do you have any tattoos?" She grinned and waggled her eyebrows like Groucho Marx on LSD, making her baseball cap bob up and down on her forehead.
    "Abby," said Samantha in a mock-scolding tone. "Leave the man alone. You've only just met him."
    "Oh, I wasn't talking to the Khaki Dude, Baby Doll. He reminds me of the commander of those Cammo Dudes out at Area 51. No, I was talking to the oh-so-sweet young thing in the cargo pants disguise."  Abby laughed again. "Junkyard Wars, small world. Stephanie Keel, right? I saw your run against the Blue Orcas team in the amateur trials- oh, about two years ago. You got shafted, I thought," she added as she shook Stephanie's hand briefly. "The judges had it in for your team leader."
    "That's what we thought too," Stephanie breathlessly replied to the whirlwind with the fly-away hair.
    "We've got to catch a Quest seaplane in just under six hours," Tom said. "Our rocket has been ready for a month while we finished our training. And it's been loaded and waiting for us on a submarine out somewhere in the South Atlantic right this minute. Once we meet the sub and get to our launch co-ordinates, we're timed to go up in the same window as the UN show. Everything is being timed out to the minute to keep suspicions to a minimum."  Miranda quickly shook her head and placed a finger on Tom's lips.
    "I take it there's something Nightwatch hasn't been let in on," Simon spoke understandingly.  "God knows, too many people know too much already."
    "In any case," Tom said after lingering just a little too long on Miranda's finger, "they've stuck the most cramped Soyuz capsule three people ever tried to fit into- onto the tip of this antique ballistic missile. Well- seven year old Chinese ballistic missile. The damn thing looks like an antique. It's got rust on it," he laughed. "The Soyuz is thirty years older, and is in a hell of a lot better shape. If anything goes wrong with that booster..." he trailed off, shaking his head and grinning. "We'll be lucky to make orbit, and if we don't hit the rendezvous point quickly..."
    "Three very important people," Samantha added, "will make a very lonely and very cold splashdown somewhere around Zavodovski Island."
    "I'm not looking forward to being shoe-horned into a tin can," Tom said. "Especially one that's been shoe-horned inside of a submarine as well. Practicing in the dark, under water in a pool- having to go down to the bottom and swap my air tanks in the dark... That was bad enough."
    "Our job," said Abby, puffing out her chest like a bantam rooster, "is to do the real job, while everyone else comes along for the ride." Samantha laughed at Abby's display of ego. Tom grinned, his mind taken off of his claustrophobia as the mood lightened again.

    "Come on you people," Miranda said while looking at her wristwatch. "We've barely got time for a farewell dinner."
    "You heard the lady," Tom said.
    "Indeed, "Simon added. "This is supposed to be a party!"
    "Yeah," Samantha said while slapping high-fives with Abby. "Let's go party while we can. The jet to the sub is ten minutes from here. We need to hit Pixel-ease, or the Amour Drome, or someplace else really close."
    "How about Taylor's?" Stephanie asked. "That's really close, and we can get a booth."
    "The perfect place," Miranda said. "I should have thought of it myself."
    "Shall we proceed, Don Quixote?" Simon quipped.
    "Indeed Sancho," Tom replied. "Let us perambulate to yon establishment. There to quaff much Sangria and stuff our faces with mounds of deep-dish pizza. Methinks 'twill be long again before we taste such fare again, anon, alas... And tilting at windmills is such thirsty work, avaunt, aroit, avert-"
    "Ah- stuff it you two," Stephanie daintily reposted. "Let's get this party started! Come on Girls," she added, turning to Miranda, Samantha, and Abby. "These two comedians are gonna waste all our valuable party time. Are you with me?"
    "You go, Girl!" Abby shouted.
    "Yeah!" cried Samantha and Miranda in unison.
    "Tom?" Simon asked. "You ever get the feeling that you've been excluded from a group?"
    "Only when I'm around this crowd!"
    Simon laughed, but then a serious expression overcame him as he remembered his talk with General Graham.  "Tom," he said.  "I need to a have a word with you, before we leave the secure area."  Tom, a puzzled look on his face, nodded.
    He took Miranda's arm, spoke something quietly, and then walked back as the girls headed out of the room.
    The conversation was brief, but the words were some of the most heartfelt Simon had ever expressed.
    Hours later, the farewell party at Taylor's was just a fond memory in Tom's mind. And a full belly from the many pizzas they'd ordered- plus a swimming head from all the wine. Now, sitting strapped in to an acceleration couch in a Russian space  capsule, duct-taped onto a Chinese rocket, resting in the belly of an Australian nuclear submarine, itself parked just yards beneath the surface of the mid-Atlantic- Tom wrapped the memories of the silliness and frivolity of his farewell dinner with his friends around him like a protective cloak. The happy memories helped to shield him from his fear of cramped spaces. After the hours of the constant nagging of his nerves- stressed to their limits by the cramped interior of the sub -Tom's not-so-secret fears positively shrieked at the first sight of the tiny tin can he was supposed to ride up into orbit. The re-working by HIT and SE craftsmen giving the thing a new composite material skin and new, more powerful engines notwithstanding. It was a little tin box, and someone was going to have to hold a gun to his head before he'd get into it. Or something like that, anyway. For the last hour his mind had been occupied by the mental gymnastics of the relaxation and distraction techniques he'd so long ago learned were necessary to force his body to cope with his claustrophobic handicap. Strapped into seats next to him, Abby and Samantha went through checklists with calm, professional precession. That helped, too. The countdown clock ticked on... Then, with a brash bray of alarm sirens, the sub surfaced, a huge hatch retracted, and Tom felt the fattest man in the universe sit down in his lap as the launch quickly left him breathless.
    The long journey had begun.

    In countless places, both public and secret, the countdown reached zero at the sameEarthrise: Outbound,18 Hours after Launch moment. From floating platforms and inland spaceports the world over, a multitude of flames erupted, pushing their fragile human cargo upward into the darkness of space. From myriad more floating platforms and submarines, where News crews had somehow totally failed to be invited, uncounted more launches took place. For a short while, the skies of planet Earth were ablaze with the light of man-made torches against the darkness. Hundreds of launches, both known and hidden, sent the last of the three thousand heroes up into the vastness of space. Then the fabulous light show faded, the pillars of smoke blew away on the evening breezes, and the sun set on the greatest hopes of mankind.  Few on Earth had time to worry, however.  Around the world, panic and puzzlement ensued as radar systems mysteriously failed simultaneously, an event later attributed to a freak alignment of the planet's magnetic field and a large burst of solar activity.  Yet, miraculously, no aviation accidents occurred.
    Within days, the motley assembly of rockets docked with the UN fleet. Soon after, the fleet was in motion. The next day, the great fleet of passenger craft meet up with the Tesla beam ships of the weapons fleet at the secret spaceyard behind the moon. After hours of small ships docking and large ships matching speeds, the great Earth-Shield fleet finally began it's voyage outward- into the eternal twilight of interplanetary space.

To Be Continued...


Text © 2004 - 2014 by Dan L. Hollifield, Nightwatch & Continuing Characters © 2004 by Jeff Williams & Robert Moryiama