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       Johnny Winger and the Battle at Caloris Basin, p.1

           Philip Bosshardt
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Johnny Winger and the Battle at Caloris Basin
Johnny Winger and the Battle at Caloris Basin

  Copyright 2017 Philip Bosshardt

  Prologue

  To strive with difficulties, and to conquer them, is the highest human felicity.

  Samuel Johnson

  Ford’s Creek, Colorado

  March 20, 2155

  2345 hours U.T.

  The problem with being a swarm being, Johnny Winger figured, was that you couldn’t taste hot dogs being grilled on a campfire. And that sucked.

  He really didn’t know how he had gotten here. He had a memory—did swarm beings even have memories?—there had been an endless field of waving, undulating plants, like a corn field, only it wasn’t corn. When he looked closer, he could see that the corn was actually composed of trillions of tiny bots, a whole field of bots. A whole planet of bots. When he walked through the field, the bot-plants parted like corn stalks, but little poofs of them drifted up and he soon saw he had a rooster tail of dust behind them, identifying the path he had taken through the field.

  Then he had come to a small lake, barely a hundred meters across. There was a small white wooden footbridge across the center of the lake. And, not unexpectedly, he saw a small whirlpool churning alongside of the bridge piling, right in the middle of a lake.

  What else was there to do but jump into the whirlpool? If this was a dream, that was the logical thing to do, wasn’t it? So he jumped…

  And wound up here. ‘Here’ was actually a place of strong, good-feeling memories. ‘Here’ was one of the good places.

  It was the old fishing camp and cabin at Ford’s Creek, Colorado. It had to be ’35, maybe ’36. His Dad, Jamison Winger, had often brought him here for long weekends in the summer and fall. Trout and bass and all that cold running water that burbled down out of the Rockies made Ford’s Creek a special place.

  He knew this place.

  Now he was inside the cabin. It was late, well after midnight. He was supposed to be in bed, in the top bunk, of course, with his brother Brad and neighbor Archie below. There were others in the bedroom too, but he didn’t know them and they were sound asleep anyway.

  Somehow, like a well-rehearsed routine, he knew what he was going to do before he even did it. Trains ran on tracks and memories followed tracks too.

  Johnny shimmied quietly down the ladder from the top bunk and padded across the hard wooden floor to the bedroom door. He cracked it open, crept out into a darkened hall and made his way toward the living room up front. There were voices there and some laughing and chuckling. Cards were being dealt. It was the grownups and their poker game again.

  Johnny stopped at the end of the hall and peered around the corner.

  A fire guttered in the chimney, mostly smoke, but no one paid any attention. A small rickety table was set up next to the fire. Chairs had been pushed aside to make room for the table. There were cans and paper sacks strewn across the floor.

  Someone burped real loud and Johnny had to stifle his own laugh.

  Grownups, really--

  Five men were playing poker around the table. One was his Dad, tall, fringe of gray hair around a mostly bald top, red flannel shirt not tucked in, his weathered, rough hands fanning out the cards to study his draw. There were others too: Hugh, Roy and Todd.

  The fifth man sat with his back to Johnny. The low lights and the flickering flames of the fire cast deep shadows across a broad set of shoulders. He never turned around, and Johnny took to calling him the Shadow Man. He didn’t know the Shadow Man’s real name.

  “Come on, Roy, you in or out?”

  Roy was stocky, white-haired, ruddy-faced, in fact he had a pig’s face, Johnny had always thought. His lips tightened and he slapped a few cards down on the table.

  “Yeah, I’m in. I’ll see your five and raise you five.”

  Todd tossed a few chips into a growing pile. “I’ll call.”

  Johnny’s Dad did the same, but added, with a mischievous wink, “I’ll see your five and raise you twenty.” He tossed a handful of chips in the pile, which had now become a small hill.

  The Shadow Man said nothing at first. Then, with no words, he tossed his own chips in, all of them. In a low, almost inaudible voice, he said, “See…and raise fifty.”

  That raised eyebrows around the table. It even gave Johnny a chill. Not what the Shadow Man said but the way he said it…like a hiss, almost, like a snarl. The Shadow Man talked like Johnny figured a talking grizzly bear would talk: guttural, menacing, hoarse and deep.

  Who was this Shadow Man? Johnny wondered.

  Then, almost as if he were answering Johnny’s question, the Shadow Man spoke again, just like a grizzly bear playing cards.

  “I never bet less than the house.” It was a kind of an explanation. The Shadow Man must have had a winning hand; he’d bet everything on that hand. More raised eyebrows.

  “Sure, whatever you say,” muttered Roy. He didn’t look up, but continued fiddling with his own cards.

  Johnny had about a million questions. Was this fishing camp real? Did I actually jump into a lake on a planet of bots? Am I dreaming?

  “You’re not dreaming,” the Shadow Man bent forward, toward Jamison Winger. “I saw the look on your face. You’re wondering how any hand could be that good. My hand is that good.”

  No one argued with the Shadow Man and the game went on. As he hung by the corner of the hallway door, Johnny tried to take in everything he saw. He knew it all had some kind of meaning.

  He’d been deconstructed, he remembered that. Doc III had done the honors, disassembling him into atoms and molecules, just before the Keeper in that cave on Europa had consumed him…or what was left of him. Now he was an angel, a para-human swarm being just like all those weirdos who followed the Assimilationists.

  And he remembered that Doc III had tried to maintain his original identity and memory in a small nondescript file called Configuration Buffer Status Check…a place the Central Entity would hopefully never think to look.

  Slowly, piece by piece, even as he watched his Dad play a poker game with Roy, Todd, Hugh and the Shadow Man, the memory of who he was and what he had to do came back.

  Thanks, Doc. The little assembler had managed to save enough of his memory to figure all this out….

  Johnny remembered being outside the Inuit village of Nanatuvik, in Alaska and seeing a man shuffling through the snow as he approached. The man was short, dark-skinned, enveloped in a heavy qaspeq parka and hood, with bone necklaces rattling around his neck as he approached. Another angel? It was hard to tell.

  The man spoke something, though Winger couldn’t hear over the whine of the wind. He realized the man was Nanatuvik’s angakkuq, the shaman. He was gesturing at something in the sky.

  Winger looked back over his shoulder. It was late afternoon, with the sun low, but already he could make out the shimmering veil of the aurora borealis hovering over the distant mountains.

  The angakkuq approached Winger and stopped, placing a hand on Winger’s shoulder.

  “The peril of our existence lies in this fact: we eat souls. Everything we eat has a soul. All things have souls. If we hunt and fail to show respect for the souls of our prey, the spirits will avenge themselves. See in the sky…the Old Woman of the Sea is already disturbed. In the days to come, we must be careful.”

  With that, the shaman ambled off toward a nearby hill.

  Johnny Winger knew he had his work cut out for him. Already he had enough intelligence about the Old Ones to make life difficult. He just had to find a way to get it to UNIFORCE.

  Mostly he hoped he could blo
ck the Central Entity from executing the Prime Key.

  Maybe, somehow, in ways he could now only dimly perceive, he could block the Prime Key himself.

  That old shaman was right, he told himself. He would have to be careful in the days and weeks ahead.

  It was a new life he was living as an angel. The rules were different here. He’d have to watch his step.

  He knew UNIFORCE needed every scrap he could give them if the Normals were to have any chance of resisting the Old Ones. He hated himself for using that term but the truth was he was half angel, half-Normal himself, one foot in each world, pulled in two opposite directions at the same time. He supposed that spies and saboteurs had always dealt with that.

  But he had to remind himself of something his son Liam had once said. “Being an angel is so cool. You can be anything, you can go anywhere, you can’t die….”

  Already he could feel the same pull Liam talked about. But he had to resist. He had to win this battle. Not only was it a battle between Normals and angels, between humans and the Old Ones.

  It was a battle with yourself. That was the hardest part. Somehow, he’d have to do what Liam and Dana and millions of others hadn’t been able to do. Win that battle and save the small kernel of his own identity, his own memories that Doc III had managed to squirrel away in a small file somewhere in his config manager, to live another day.

  The Normal part of him was just a few bytes at the end of that file.

  But it was the only human part left. And that was the part that had to survive.

  Now it had survived. Doc III had seen to that.

  Now it was time to get to work. The Shadow Man had told him, in ways he couldn’t really explain, that he had an important mission to perform.

  Chapter 1

  Farside Observatory

  Korolev Crater, the Moon

  March 25, 2155

  0100 hours U.T.

  Third-shift astronomers Nigel Course and Lilly Fong knew of no better word to describe what they were seeing than dread. Pure, unaltered, rock-in-the-bottom-of-your-stomach dread.

  Both were pulling late shift today…tonight…whatever the hell it was. Tending the radars and telescopes of Farside Array, scanning sector after sector of the heavens for any little burp or fart worthy of an astronomer’s interest. The High Freq array had just gone through a major tune-up last week and it was Course’s job to give her a complete shakedown for the next few days.

  At the moment, she was boresighted to some distant gamma-ray sources somewhere in Pegasus…where exactly he’d forgotten.

  While Fong peeled a banana and stifled a yawn, Course took one last look out the nearest porthole and begrudged the final wisps of daylight before Farside was fully enveloped in the nightfall. At that same moment, he heard a beeping from his console and turned his attention back to the array controls.

  What the hell…

  Nigel Course looked over his boards, controlling the positioning of the great radars out on the crater floor and the optical and radio telescopes that accompanied them. He quickly pinpointed the source of the beeping…Nodes 20 through 24…the south lateral array…was picking up some anomaly.

  He massaged the controls and tried to focus the array better, get better resolution on the target. SpaceGuard didn’t beep without reason.

  Only it wasn’t SpaceGuard. It was Sentinel. The outer solar system net.

  A quick perusal made the hairs on the back of Nigel Course’s neck stand up. The system displayed a list of likely targets, based on radar imaging and known ephemerides. He scanned the list, mumbling the details to himself.

  “ Hmmm….right ascension 22 degrees, 57 minutes, 28 seconds. Declination 20 degrees, 46 minutes, 8 seconds---“ Just as he was about to consult the catalog, Sentinel threw up a starmap.

  Lily Fong dropped her half-eaten banana.

  “The Mother Swarm,” she murmured.

  Course’s fingers were flying around the keyboard. “Lilly, we don’t know that. We need to study this thing. It’s an all-sector alarm, I’ve got returns on all bands. Whatever the hell it is, it’s big. Gi-normous, in fact. A quarter of the sky, centered on 51 Pegasi, but not fifty light years away. In fact, it’s right on our doorstep…or rather, Pluto’s doorstep or where Pluto used to be.”

  “Anything on Doppler?”

  Course finagled with more buttons. “Bearing…toward the inner system. Margin of error puts it within a cone approximately two astronomical units, centered…” he tapped more keys, “…centered on us or near us.”

  Fong shuddered. “It’s here. Billions of kilometers away but it’s here. Can we get some resolution on the thing?”

  “We can try.” For the next few minutes, the two astronomers worked together, manipulating the instruments that comprised the Sentinel net, a vast detection grid orbiting the sun beyond the orbit of Pluto, a world now gone forever, a grid designed and placed to alert UNISPACE to any threats coming from certain suspect bearings…like 51 Pegasi. The design parameters never mentioned the Old Ones or little green men or extraterrestrial monsters from outer space by name, but no one was fooled.

  Sentinel was designed to do exactly what it seemed to have just done.

  After half an hour, Fong sat back in her chair. Her face was pale, the blood had drained out when the Sentinel alarm had gone off. A sheen of sweat beaded up on her forehead and drops fell to the keyboard. She ignored them and looked wordlessly over at Course.

  “You know what we have to do.” It wasn’t a question. “The protocol’s pretty clear when we get a Level One alert.”

  Course ran down the results of the last scan, the one that made Fong so pale. “I read the analysis this way, Lilly…just so we’re clear on the details in case questions come up. After washing the raw data through ALBERT three times, do you concur that the detected anomaly…we’re calling it KB-1 for now…Kuiper Belt Object One…is a diffuse mass of small particle-sized objects with a thermal signature of a large swarm?”

  Fong nodded silently, staring at the graphs and plots on her panel as if they were contaminated. “I concur,” she whispered, weakly. “It has to be the leading edge, Nigel. That’s all it can be. We studied and simulated this possibility for years, every which way we can. Most of the runs converge on results very similar to, if not identical, to this. ALBERT doesn’t lie.”

  Course stood up and went over to a porthole, which gave onto a constricted view of the nearest arrays of the Submillimeter Interferometer, and a shadowy backdrop of Korolev crater’s steep craggy walls beyond. A triangle of blazing sunlight still illuminated the upper rim, last gasp of the lunar day.

  “I still don’t get it--“Course shook his head, turned back to the consoles. “51 Pegasi’s been quiet for years…SpaceGuard’s never showed anything. Now, all of a sudden, BLAM! Energy spikes all over the place. We should have seen something before…rising X-ray, rising gamma levels, something. Black holes don’t just appear out of nowhere.”

  “ALBERT doesn’t say it’s a black hole, Nigel. That’s just wishful thinking.”

  Course shrugged, staring at the velocity scans superimposed on each other, silently willing the data to say something else, anything else. “If it’s not a micro, then what is it? What eats whole worlds?”

  Fong pointed to the graphs on her display. “That does. There’s your answer. ALBERT doesn’t care whether we like it or not. Best match with the data from Sentinel. Really, the only match.”

  Course took a deep breath. “I know, I know. I’m just trying to make sure what we have is airtight. Every time we’ve raised a flag, UNISPACE winds up hitting us over the head with it. Gamma ray burster…dark matter cloud…Type II supernova…they’ve always got another explanation. But this time—“

  “I’m sending a NOTAP to Gateway. The Watch Center needs to see this. Maybe they’ll have some ideas.”

  Course nodded. “Do it. I’ll set SenDef Three. S
entinel Defense Condition Three. That’ll wake everybody up at Station T and Station P…pretty much everybody from here to Saturn.”

  The Notice of Astronomical Phenomena went out from Farside moments later. It was like setting off a firecracker at a funeral. In less than five minutes, the dense grid of comm links from Saturn to Mercury had erupted into a furor, buzzing and vibrating with questions, answers, expletives, exclamations, proclamations, bad jokes and nervous posts.

  All Nigel Course and Lilly Fong could do now was wait…wait for the inevitable call from UNISPACE Headquarters in Paris.

  Four hundred thousand kilometers from Farside, CINCSPACE General Mahmood Salaam had been attending an awards dinner on the fifty-first floor of the Quartier-General in Paris when his wristpad vibrated with an urgent message.

  It was the first Level One NOTAP he had seen in his whole five-year tenure as Commander-in-Chief of UNISPACE.

  Salaam studied the alert message: KB-1…Sentinel tripped…SenDef Three…large formation moving toward the inner System…

  The Bengali commander sniffed. Somebody at Gateway probably flushed the trash compactor when they shouldn’t have. Still, it had to be checked out.

  He studied the ceremony program, calculating just when he could quietly exit the proceedings without causing an uproar…or a diplomatic incident. Oscar Amirante…ten years as a cycler captain aboard the Kepler…K-Dog, the dockhands called it, Salaam chuckled softly at that…driving the old rattletrap on its never-ending bus route…Earth-Mars-Venus, Earth-Mars-Venus, again and again and again. He figured Amirante was getting an award for just maintaining his sanity.

  Salaam chose his moment and deftly slipped out of the auditorium. He rode the lift to the seventieth floor. CINCSPACE suite. Also known as the Empire, to local wags.

  At his desk, he called up the full NOTAP. No, this was no mistake, he quickly realized. As Salaam scanned the details, he realized Farside had latched onto something, something big, whatever it was. You didn’t set SenDef Three and wake up half the solar system for no reason.

  Whatever it was, Salaam knew, UNISPACE would be front and center.

  CINCSPACE figured he needed somebody to bounce ideas off of. Better get de Britt up and running, he decided. His Chief of Staff, Ruyters de Britt, was pure angel, currently residing in containment in an ornate New Delhi pod that resembled Aladdin’s Lamp, a gift from his youngest daughter Miriam a year ago. She’d always enjoyed watching her four-star father summon forth angels and swarms from containment.

 
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