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The new NESOT (Near Earth Space Object Tracking) satellite paid dividends less than three months after its launch. The computerized system spat a data stream on the incoming object to NORAD. It did this for any detected object which would enter the Earth's atmosphere.

The level of NORAD tracking which dealt with objects that should burn up on atmospheric entry was computerized. An alarm sequence was triggered by any anomaly. Twenty-three seconds after it took over from NESOT, the alarm sounded.

* * *

Brigadier General Durham looked over the shoulder of the warrant officer at the screen display. He took a deep breath. Chicago! 

He took another deep breath. The procedures were laid down. It had been something of a joke. But the NESOT data showed that it wasn't a joke. Not at all funny, in reality. This was incoming from deep space. And it was decelerating. Falling objects don't naturally do that.

Incoming. Incoming and alien.

* * *

While on its final approach, the American Airlines flight inbound from New York abruptly lost radio and radar contact for fifteen seconds with Chicago O'Hare's Tower Approach Control. The explosive reactions of the pilot were mild compared to those at Chicago Air Traffic Control. And those in turn were mild compared to the reaction at Cheyenne Mountain.

They'd lost the object. And they'd lost all radio contact with Chicago. Fortunately the fiber-optic link between Cheyenne Mountain and Chicago Air Traffic Control remained functional.

Air traffic controllers are renowned for their imperturbability. The senior ATC on the other end of the line managed a perfectly controlled level voice—that could have etched steel.

"NORAD? Ah! Right. Are you folks doing something we need to know about? Because we just nearly lost a fully loaded heavy." Despite the angry tinge underlying her voice, the controller wasn't actually snarling. Not quite. NORAD and Air Traffic Control centers worked closely together and were generally on good terms.

Brigadier General Durham was able to reassure himself that whatever had happened, it hadn't included destroying Chicago. But he was quite unable to reassure the woman on the other end of the line that it wouldn't happen again. NORAD had no more idea than she did what had caused the temporary radio blackout.

* * *

"I've already got two companies from the 101st on their way from Fort Campbell. They're only four hundred miles away and can get there in their own Blackhawks. But I want the entire 82nd mobilized and ready to go. That's going to require—"

"Goddamn it, Fred," snarled the National Security Council's representative, Tom Harkness. "According to your own satellite data, the object has an estimated maximum diameter of four to six feet. This isn't Independence Day, for Christ's sake, or War of the Worlds."

Harkness rubbed the sleep from his eyes, scowling fiercely. Clearly enough, he had not appreciated being awakened from a sound sleep for this—this—

Harkness' lip curled into a slight sneer. The expression had a well-practiced air about it. "If the thing isn't some kind of prank in the first place—and I'm smelling hoax here."

An idle thought flashed through General Brasno's mind. Takes one to know one. But he restrained himself manfully. Harkness was continuing to speak.

"So I can't see telling the President at this point that he should send in more than a token force of paratroopers. Mainly just to reassure any agitated local officials that the government is on its toes."

General Brasno had dealt with Harkness before. Unfortunately. He sometimes thought the NSC official's conception of reality was that it was a spin created by a public relations campaign. Presumably for the sake of creating an audience.

"If it is real—if, I say—then it's bound to be a friendly first contact, not an attack." Harkness pointed a dramatic finger and wagged it in his best professorial manner. "You can't cram an invasion force into something that size. And we don't want to start a goddamn war—or trigger off a major panic."

General Brasno folded his arms across his chest. "You don't scramble friendly communications either. That is a pathfinder. Either a pathfinder or a Von Neumann-type machine, capable of replication. Which means one machine is all you need for a geometric progression of invaders. If that thing shows any sign of replication we need to have adequate personnel to deal with it."

Harkness shook his head stubbornly. "You do not have authorization at the moment to do anything more than send in those two companies from the 101st." The NSC man glanced at his watch. "And now I've got to catch a plane, in order to get a first hand look at this so-called 'UFO.' "

As soon as he was gone, General Brasno was on the phone to the commander of the 82nd Airborne. "George? It's me again. They won't agree to sending you in yet. But I want you ready to go at a moment's notice."

He hung up the phone and scowled at one of his aides. "Pity those poor bastards in the 101st, if anything goes wrong. Two companies!"


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