Vacuous sameness trickled in, dust particles and the distant white noise of the great asteroid field between them and Mars the only distant sparkles of something interesting. The orbiting satellites from Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons were a web of optics and sensors, feeding zetabytes of data into his protective screen of applications. The apps digested it, giving yet more graphs and presentations of what was out there. What was out there was a whole lot of nothing. He was trapped in a chamber of floating renderings, numbers, planets, and even the satellites taking pictures of each other.
Drumming his fingers as abrasive sounds pounded out an aggressive rhythm all around him, the listening post operator adjusted the sensor feeds again. He was only allowed one recreational feed and he’d chosen a violent mid-21st century action opera. The heroine was billowing out a wail to a 140 BPM drum shuffle as she fired a high-powered thermal rifle from out a building’s window at the charging any assassins. It took a real badass to sing and gunfight at the same time.
“Rand, you settled in?” Doug, the only other sensor operator on shift asked. “I need a break.”
“Take your break, dickbag,” Rand Wasolek yelled into his earpiece, turning down his action opera. His eardrums thanked him, the tightness and hiss in them starting to make him think he was giving himself a problem. He needed the loud music and films to stay awake. He’d long acquired immunity to the watery GMO coffee they got from earth long ago. It could grow in almost any climate, the only tradeoff had been actual flavor. The emptiness all of his apps and sensors broadcast to him was a blast of narcolepsy inducement. Even the network traffic coming into the post from Mars, Luna, and Earth was minimal. “Not like I need you. We’re on Europa, for shit’s sake. What’s going to happen?”
“You got it, shithead,” Doug responded. “I’m going to eat something and be back.” Rand stretched, glaring out the window at the sprawling complex of the European colony. The listening post was in a tower that floated in the middle of the structure, gazing out on the frozen vista and lineae of Europa’s surface. The human structures protruded like fingers and hands sticking up out of it, penetrating into the warmer water underneath and stretching deeper down into the moon’s metallic core. It was an amazing view, but a shitty job. The apps did most of the work for him, interpreting the feeds and telling him when and where something might be wrong. Still, they wanted that human touch. Someone watching and ready, and he had enough basic competence to work as a communications office and fix connectivity issues with the intra-solar network. There were four of them in the colony, and Doug was his backup for the shift.
One app began to detail anomalies. Then another started to detect movement outside the normal scale of space trash. The sensor array began to send him alerts. He reached for the haptic interface and enlarged the data related to whatever it was that spooked the systems so much. The anomaly was moving, too fast to get optics on. He pulled up another auxiliary sensor app and requested that it recreate whatever it was virtually for him. He switched off his action opera. For the first time since the last FTL test flight, he needed real concentration.
“What the fuck …” Rand started to say. A sense of urgency was a foreign sensation at this point. “This is way too much excitement this early in the morning.”
On a separate holographic display, he watched the object come into focus, along with various apps that took guesses at what it was. It was an spherical. The composition told him it was metallic and appeared to be giving off significant heat and radiation that was suggestive of an incredible amount of energy in a single direction. Clearly. Rand blinked, watching the apps attempt to make further guesses about it. It looked like a tiny planet or moon, but it was moving. Moreso, it was moving and putting out energy and radiation that suggested propulsion. Rand got a horrible, horrible feeling and told the sensors to check its trajectory. More or less a straight-line. Not orbiting. Using a few things as a quick gravity slingshot, but moving with a purpose.
“Am I looking at a ship?” he said to no one but himself and the apps. They didn’t react, confused. “M.C.P.,” he asked the appropriate app. “Am I looking at a spacecraft of unknown origin?”
He paced nervously, during the delay it took the app to compile and use its crude artificial intelligence to judge. “Available data does not rule out that possibility,” the M.C.P. app responded. “It is a plausible supposition.”
“This is not happening,” Rand whispered. Then he full-on panicked. “I need the Colony Administrator NOW!” he punched into his colony communications protocol app. “Doug, also, get your ass back here for shit’s sake!”
“Administrator Cheung is currently out of the office and is in do not disturb mode,” a chipper synthetic voice belonging to the administrator’s virtual assistant responded.
“Override, override, OVERRIDE! Priority one or whatever!” was all Rand could manage.
“Hold please,” the virtual assistant responded. “Please note that the Administrator has been extraordinarily displeased when individuals have abused the override function previously. She asks that all personnel exercise discretion in doing so or severe administrative sanctions may be invoked.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Rand said, watching the path of this Hell-Orb hurtle toward Earth. “I think Administrator Cheung would want to know about this.”
“What’s going on up there?” Doug said, his voice clear and footsteps heavy as he raced back from wherever he was.
“Rand?” Administrator Amy Cheung’s tired voice slurred. “What’s going on? Another meteor inbound?” Rand connected them all in a single channel, trying to figure out which apps told the story the best.
“If only, Administrator,” Rand said. “M.C.P., please send Doug and Administrator a summary of what we have.” M.C.P. would have to figure out the best data for him since he clearly didn’t have time to put together a highlight reel.
“Well, this is different,” Doug said, bursting into the listening post. He began to directly work the apps. “I think I had a dream about this once.” His voice was detached, drifting into disbelief.
“Guys, is this what I think it is?” Amy Cheung said as she tried to make sense of what she was seeing in her interface. Rand pictured her in her bedroom working through her interfaces. She was smart. She would see it. “Please tell me it’s anything other than what I think it is.”
“We’ve got aliens,” Rand answered. “And they appear to be headed right for Earth. I’m assuming we might want to give someone a head’s up?”