Pan-STARRS telescope, University of Hawaii, Haleakala, Hawaii, October 2017
Dr. Damon Garcia pushed his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose. “I’ll be,” was all he could say while staring at the new contact he just found with the Pan-STARRS telescope. A few minutes passed as he typed on the observatories’ control console in the small office below the one-point-eight-meter primary lens. Research papers and thick books of astronomical observations lay scattered around the office.
“Wow, it can’t be.” Damon brought up the previous night’s observational data for the area of the sky he was studying. “You missed it!” he spoke to no one, but referring to the Pan-STARRS computer program that was supposed to find moving objects in the observatories’ data.
Damon measured the object moving at a tremendous angle above the ecliptic, the common plane that planets travel in the solar system. The program’s purpose was to sift through gigabytes of data and find near-earth objects. It had missed the object Damon was tracking.
Damon always wore a sports jacket and white shirt, making him feel comfortable, even while sitting for hours doing his research. His peers knew him as a quiet man who had infinite patience and a researcher’s talent for attention to detail and observation. To Damon, data told a story; it was like breadcrumbs leading to great discoveries of the natural world. He was good at knowing how to spot and patiently follow the crumbs.
As he was leaving for the night, Damon sat and wrote in his notebook, “I’ve got an amazing find! My data says the object is only four-hundred meters wide but moves at twenty-five kilometers per second, coming at a severe angle to the ecliptic, higher than I’ve ever seen. It can’t be an asteroid or a comet, as far as I can tell. It’s got to be coming from outside the solar system.”
Three days later
“We have designated the object A/2017 U1. Dr. Garcia has given it the name Oumuamua, which means what, Damon?” The director of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was hosting a call with a hundred scientists and reporters. The center in Cambridge recorded all official observations of near-earth objects in our solar system.
“It means scout in Hawaiian. Given it’s the first object coming from outside our solar system, it seemed appropriate.” The science reporters ate it up. Not less than one-hundred observatories around the world were tracking Damon’s sighting.
“Dr. Garcia, you said it wasn’t an asteroid or comet, what is it, an alien spaceship?” the reporter from Scientific American asked.
Damon didn’t laugh, “We know that it is narrow, long, and doesn’t have a cometary tail. The object has moved rapidly and sling-shot around the sun, passing relatively near Earth on its way out of the solar system. It’s heading to the constellation Pegasus. Oumuamua is the first interstellar object we’ve identified moving through the solar system.”
Another reporter commented, “Holy mackerel, it could be a spaceship.”
Damon stretched and cracked his neck to the side. He had worked late for the last few weeks, tracking Oumuamua and coordinating with his peers at other observatories worldwide. He got up and walked around his telescope’s office, exercising a bit. His console beeped loudly, and Damon rushed back.
“What’s this?” Damon typed into his keyboard to zoom in on the objects being tracked coming out from Oumuamua. “Whoa…” he breathed as he saw two objects shoot out and take up different courses than Oumuamua. The probes, what else could they be, he thought, accelerated. Damon set up his software to track each and waited to see where they were headed. They were going five times faster than Oumuamua itself.
After three hours, he had tracked the first probe toward an asteroid in near-Earth orbit. “Anteros, why Anteros?” he asked no one. He couldn’t find any indication it crashed, leading him to believe that it landed. The second probe took up orbit close to the sun.
Damon sat back and took off his glasses. He had been reluctant to be baited to call Oumuamua an alien spacecraft. But damn! he thought. It really is. He stored his recordings carefully and left for the night, deep in thought.
The next day Damon talked with NASA executives and other researchers to coordinate how to verify and possibly release his findings. The meeting was scheduled for tomorrow, and Damon was back at work in his office, preparing.
His phoned beeped and he answered it.
“Are you Dr. Damon Garcia?”
“Yes,” Damon replied hesitantly.
“Your recent discovery about Oumuamua is dangerous. They won’t allow your findings to go public. ”
“Who is this?”
There was a pause, then the man continued, “We can help. I am now encrypting this call, Dr. Garcia. We are a group that works on behalf of people in developing countries. We are called Fuerte. We are not like those who are pursuing you. They only care about protecting their vast assets and want what you have learned for their financial interests. Consequently, they don’t want the public to know about it. We are going to give you the address of a safe house; if you can make it there, we can protect you.”
Damon hastily scribbled down the information the man from Fuerte gave him. The man ended the call saying, “Please, be careful.” Damon sat back and stared at his pad of paper.
There was too much to do to prepare for his briefing tomorrow to deal with this. But he had to do something.
Damon looked up the number of an old college buddy, who worked at the FBI. They talked for a few minutes, then Damon called home. “Hi, Matti! It’s Dad.” Damon smiled. His daughter was the best twelve-year-old in the world. He adored her. Damon talked with Matti for a few minutes, happy to take his thoughts away from his work’s stress and the phone call from Fuerte.
Matti asked, “Are you coming home for dinner? We’re having mac-n-cheese, our favorite!”
Damon sighed, “I’m sorry, honey. I won’t be home, but it sounds delicious. I’ve got to go, love you and see you in the morning.”
“Ok, love you, dad. I hope you get to come for dinner soon.”
Damon ended the call, feeling more guilty than ever. He tapped his wife’s cell entry on his phone. “Hi, Honey. I have to work late again. Sorry. My day was disturbing. I got a phone call from a group named Fuerte warning me that my research is being watched and that a hostile group didn’t want it getting out. I called Justin, my college buddy, at the FBI. He had heard of Fuerte, the group that called me. He said it was a secret organization in the developing world. They are benevolent, but he didn’t like how secretive they were and promised he would look into it.”
Damon listened to his wife for a minute, then continued, “No, I don’t think I need to call the police. I’m not sure what they could do since no one has threatened me. The call just made me super-paranoid. I can talk to NASA security tomorrow.” Damon talked a bit more and then finished the call, feeling better.
As he worked, his mind ruminated on the odd call. Your discovery of Oumuamua is dangerous. We are Fuerte. By the time he finished creating his presentation, he felt confident about what he would share. The more he reviewed his videos, the more he thought he was sitting on proof of an alien spaceship.
Matti woke with a start and squinted at her clock. It was three am. Why was she up? Something had startled her awake. Was daddy home yet? She pulled the curtains back from her bedroom window and peeked outside. She didn’t see his car like she usually did. She walked down the hall to her mommy’s bedroom.
“Where’s daddy, mommy?”
Carol woke and yawned. She reached over and patted the empty bed beside her and sat up, wide awake. “I don’t know, honey. He should be home, even with working late. I’ll call his office.”
Carol called Damon’s office and just got his answering message. She hung up and looked worried.
Matti got worried too. “Is daddy ok?”
Flashing lights appeared outside on the street and got brighter as a car pulled into their driveway. Carol jumped out of bed and grabbed her robe. “Come on, honey, someone’s at the door.” Carol was afraid now and quickly ran down the stairs. She reached the door just as the doorbell rang. Unlatching and opening the door, she was startled by a policewoman standing just outside. The woman looked down at her clipboard.
“Morning, mam. Are you Mrs. Carol Garcia?“
Carol nodded her head and put her arm around Matti, who held tightly onto her mother’s robe. The red lights of the police car in the driveway flashed harshly on the doorway.
“Is Damon ok? Why are you here?“
“May I come in?”
Carol opened the door wider, and the officer stepped inside.
“Mam, your husband was found by security twenty minutes ago. His head was bleeding from a bullet wound, and they took him directly to Riverview General. If you’d like to follow me, I can escort you there.” Carol and Matti quickly got in their car and drove to the hospital. Three hours later, Damon died with Carol and Matti at his side.
By morning all data from Damon’s research was missing from LX1 and NASA servers. But not before Fuerte was able to make a copy of the videos Damon took of Oumuamua.
Thirteen years later, Lajitas, Texas
Playing golf at Black Jack’s Crossing in Lajitas, Texas, was Texas Senator Richard Barrister’s favorite way to conduct business. He loved the expansive views of the mountains. The food at the lodge was a great draw, also.
His West Texas ranch was nearby. He could drive for hours and never leave his two-hundred-thousand acres. But for a business meeting, he preferred golf at Black Jack’s instead of his ranch. The ranch was his sanctuary. He went to the ranch when he needed time out of the limelight. He tried to keep it exclusively for him and his family and not use it for business.
Paul Manning, the CEO of Space Industries, flew in from Houston that morning to meet with Barrister. They were on the green at the first hole. Paul took in the view. “I’m glad we met here; the view is unparalleled.” Black Jack’s was at the southwest edge of Big Bend National Park, and the twenty-mile views of massive pines, limestone cliffs, and mountains rising in the background were spectacular.
The love of wide-open expanses was one thing that both men had in common. It gave them a sense of freedom and progress they couldn’t get sitting in an office. The senator craved the openness of West Texas. Paul worked to open access to the asteroids’ infinite mineral resources, just waiting to be tapped. Wide-open spaces symbolized bountiful resources and endless opportunity, growth, and prosperity. Activists and scientists in the climate change debate argued for constraint and limitation. The senator and Paul couldn’t accept that. Both would rather die than give up the notion that America couldn’t expand itself into a higher state of prosperity through old-fashion American ingenuity, grit, and above all, technological growth.
“I do love this view,” the senator remarked. “I’d love to come here every day to revel in this view of America, wide, open, and free.”
Richard looked every bit the powerful US Senator that he was. He was elected at the age of twenty-seven and served fourteen years in Congress, twelve as a senator. He was short at five-foot-seven, bald, and always wore a cowboy hat and boots. He compensated for his lack of height with a strong, commanding voice. He bragged, to anyone who would listen, that he never lost at anything, ever.
Paul was taller at six-foot-two. He had a full head of wavy brown hair and an actor’s bearing, handsome, and confident. His parents had encouraged Paul to pursue acting, but he was driven to entrepreneurship and space exploration.
At twenty, he started a business in his college city of Boston, Massachusetts, to provide more affordable student housing. He made his first million building and renting cheap apartments that students loved.
He loved to talk about his 10x mindset, which he defined as always trying to improve whatever he tackled by ten times. He would say, “No one wants slight improvements, but they think you’re God if you can deliver something ten times better.” He had always delivered a ten times improvement in his business ventures and was rewarded financially for his abilities.
It wasn’t until Senator Barrister teed off at the fourth hole, and after a perfect shot down the fairway, that he turned to look at Paul to give him the good news.
“Our board met yesterday and approved full funding of Space Industries’ expansion. We agreed to your proposal for one-hundred billion dollars in exchange for twenty-five percent ownership and a seat for two of our members on your board.”
Paul looked over at the senator and reached his hand out to shake on it. “It’s great to be partners, sir. The space station is going to provide many opportunities for excellent financial returns.”
The senator responded, “That proposal you sent us is the answer to many of our problems. Your technology will save the world from this so-called global warming! We’ll just keep expanding past the open plains, past those mountains, and right out into the vastness of space. There’ll be no limits to growth on my watch! Climate change will not mean business stagnation for us.”
“Amen to that!” He was proud that he secured tens of billions of dollars for his company in federal tax waivers and grants from the senator’s committee and the consortium of companies to which the senator was tied.
Paul had worked on bringing his space expansion vision to fruition his whole adult life. He spent years buying additive manufacturing and smaller rocket companies. Space Industries recruited the best engineering talent they could find from space programs and aerospace startups. He was relentless in securing patents to protect his new technologies. This new infusion of capital would supercharge his dream of building a space economy.
They played through the next hole, then the senator stopped and looked earnestly at Paul, “One more important point. We want you to pull in the Anteros asteroid and explore it.”
“Explore it?” Paul was confused, “Why, Anteros?”
“We want you to mine it to build the space station, but you must explore it first. We have solid research that tells us it is an object of extreme interest for many reasons. I think we’ll all be surprised at what we find there,” the senator added mysteriously.
Paul looked thoughtful, “I’ll run it by my folks. If it checks out, we’ll certainly prioritize it.”
The senator’s smile vanished. He looked straight at Paul with a practiced, stern look.
“Paul. This isn’t a wish; it is a stipulation of the agreement. You will bring Anteros to lunar orbit and explore it, or the deal is off. It must be the first asteroid you bring in.”
The senator didn’t trust well. He loathed putting risks with substantial consequences into other’s usually incapable hands. He also thought about the effort his group had spent finding out that Anteros was where Oumuamua had sent a probe a dozen years ago.
“So, are we in agreement?”
Paul thought about the herculean changes to Space Industries’ priorities to mine Anteros first. The funding was everything. He consented, “Yes, we are. We have to build the Lunar processing station first, which will take five years, but Anteros will be the first asteroid we bring in.”
“Perfect,” the senator smiled. He held out his hand, and Paul grasped it and shook.