The aliens are coming!
Ten helium emission sources have been detected headed toward Earth from Alpha Centauri, and they're slowing down. We've seen something like them before, over a decade ago. They're Alpha Centaurian starships. And most likely, they've come to wipe us out.
The good news is that we can see them at all, and that they are slowing down. For them to be as close as they are, so soon after we'd destroyed their first scout, they would have had to have hit a top speed of over 90% of the speed of light on their way to us. There would have been nothing preventing them from not slowing down and simply slamming into us. We would have had no warning — by the time their light reached us, they'd have nearly been upon us — and even if we could see them coming, there would have been nothing we could do to stop them. But the fact that they're decelerating means that relativistic ramming is off the table. What else they could have in store for us is anyone's guess.
The world is in a panic. But at least we'd had time to prepare. Opposition to the new World Federal Government practically dissolves overnight, in the wake of the news of the Alpha Centaurians' impending arrival. Only one thought is on everyone's mind: Survive this.
The scene jumps to 12-14 years earlier, when the Centaurus Helium Anomaly is first spotted. Astronomers Jill Chambers and Sammy are in the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town, trying to figure out what the Anomaly is. In real life at the dawn of the 21st century, the Cape Town facility is little more than an administrative headquarters with the "real" telescopes located in Sutherland 370 km away to escape the light pollution. However, since the advent of scattering compensation (an invention I made up to correct for light pollution), serious astronomy can once again be performed in major cities like Cape Town. Jill is a South African citizen and is more-or-less a director at the observatory, but is still very hands-on when it comes to observational astronomy. Sammy is more or less her subordinate. All they know about the Anomaly at first is that it consists almost entirely of helium emission lines blue shifted as though the helium were headed toward Earth at 15% of the speed of light.
Soon, they discover that whatever is producing the helium is only headed toward Earth at 5% of the speed of light. One possible, ominous conclusion: The helium is rocket exhaust, from an exotic engine with an exhaust velocity of 0.1c.
Eventually, it's confirmed. It's a starship from Alpha Centauri. The rocket exhaust blasting toward Earth is pure helium-4, without a hint of helium-3 or other elements. And the starship is slowing down, at a rate that will bring it to a stop within the Solar system.
Despite only being observable south of the Tropic of Cancer, the U.S. Military moves in and takes over the Centaurus Helium Anomaly project. Jill is infuriated but can do nothing. Although the project has been "militarized", they still need the help of the civilian astronomers, since Air Force astronomy consists of little more than looking for Earth-orbiting satellites and is not at all up to the task of tracking objects at interplanetary distances.
The military tracking of the Centaurus Helium Anomaly — now called the Centaurian Bogey — is headed up by Air Force Brigadier General Patrick Maynar, and his trusted subordinate Lt. Colonel Ira Henderson. Both of them are in the unique position of having studied, and prepared for, the possibility of encountering an extraterrestrial civilization, something that would normally have been career suicide for an Air Force man.
As the Centaurian Bogey nears Earth, radar tracking is added to the purely astronomical observations. Doppler radar confirms the Bogey is slowing at 0.8g, and its projected course will intercept the Earth at low speed. General Maynar takes this as a sign that they may intend to ram the Earth like a killer asteroid. Jill counters that if they were going to do that, why slow down at all? They would do far more damage if they kept their speed high. Maynar reluctantly accepts this argument, and elects to wait.
The Centaurian Bogey has settled into a low Earth orbit, below our Van Allen belts. General Maynar sums up his attitude as: "We have to assume that they might be hostile. They, most likely, are making the same assumption about us."
The Centaurian Bogey is long and slender, with a narrow wire mesh cone sticking out of one side and a long, narrow boom sticking out the other. The far end of the boom seems to be where its helium exhaust comes out, meaning the cone is its "front" end. Various bits and bulges of unknown function festoon it just aft of its cone.
Suddenly, one of these bulges flares to life, radiating a surprising amount of waste heat. From radiation reflected off the thin dust in Earth orbit, they deduce that the bulge is an ultraviolet laser of tremendous wattage, currently pointed toward Alpha Centauri. General Maynar immediately jumps to the conclusion that it's a weapon. But why would they be shooting at Alpha Centauri, which was supposedly their home? Maynar concludes that the aliens aboard it are either insane or renegades.
Jill tries to explain that it's probably a communication tool and is just sending a message back to the aliens' home. You have to put tremendous power into a beam for it to be detectable at interstellar distances, particularly against the glare of Earth's sun. Maynar has no patience for this "egghead stuff." After all, the aliens might just be warming up their laser in preparation for shooting at targets on the Earth's surface. (Jill mutters, "Somebody here is insane, all right.")
And so "reasoning", he decides to take pre-emptive action, and — with prior authorization from the President for just such a contingency — orders two nuclear ICBMs to be launched at the alien spacecraft. (These two ICBMs have been hastily retrofit to track a target in Earth orbit instead of striking a fixed target on the surface of the Earth.)
Cut to a small segment from the Centaurian perspective. Little to no details will be given about the Centaurians at that point. All that will be revealed is that living Centaurians are, in fact, aboard the starship, they see the missiles coming, and they conclude — based on the missiles' low velocity — that they're not weapons. The only weapons they are on the lookout for are high-speed kinetic weapons. They assume the missiles carry messages, or perhaps even a live envoy. They've never seen uncontrolled nuclear fission before — even radioactivity is a recent discovery for them — and it is with utter shock and horror that they see the first missile detonate less than a kilometer away from them.
Only the vacuum of space saves them from being completely obliterated by the first explosion. The radiation burst damages nearly every part of their starship, but the communication laser is still operational. They have enough time to tell their homeworld that this strange civilization on Earth has attacked them with unbelievably powerful explosives carried by slow-moving orbiters, before the second missile explodes at point-blank range and rips the starship apart.
Jill's response to General Maynar in the wake of the "confirmed kill": "You were worried that the aliens might consider us hostile. By blowing them up, you've removed all doubt!"
Remotely-controlled robots investigate the remains of the Centaurian starship. They find some organic material, including what appears to be a gruesomely mangled 3-jointed arm. They conclude that these are the remains of the starship's crew. They salvage as much as they can for dirtside analysis, including slabs of a strange honeycomblike metal (which they call Samples B7 through B15) from inside the enormous boom that was sticking out of the starship's back end.
Materials analysis of Samples B7-B15 shows them to be of an alloy heretofore never used in human engineering, and consisting of billions of microscopic chambers. Their purpose can't be discerned, yet, but a few folks have some pretty interesting guesses.
Jill realizes that the only way the world can defend itself against aliens who know we're a threat is with the concerted efforts of every nation on Earth, in a defense program the likes of which the planet has never seen. She is not alone in her thinking. She gets into politics, but bypasses the usual State or National scene to aim for something even higher. Addressing the U.N., she pushes for the grassroots development of an entirely new government that encompasses the entire world. Just like the 13 original U.S. states formed one central Federal government, yielding some powers to it but reserving other powers for themselves, so she proposes a World Federal Government where each of the major nations on Earth would itself become one of its member States.
Popular pressure is mixed. Some fear the loss of their national identity. Some scream that a One World Government is one sign of the Apocalypse. Some fear the power that this new Federal government might grab for itself. But Jill and like-minded individuals enjoy a groundswell of support. Nothing gets bickering parties to agree faster than a common enemy.
Meanwhile, public opinion is outraged at General Maynar. He is forced to resign in disgrace. Lt. Colonel Ira Henderson still feels that Maynar was right to strike when he did. He vows to stand tall against the aliens in the inevitable Centaurian counterattack that's sure to come.
Soon enough, the groundswell of support for the new government bypasses all the naysayers, and public elections for the new World Federal Government's Congress are held for the first time. Jill is elected Senator from the State of South Africa. (This new "South Africa" WFG state is much larger than the country currently known as the Republic of South Africa. It covers the entire southern half of the African continent.) In less than a year, the World Federal Government is in full swing.
Jill spearheads the WFG's alien defense task force, and sets up its headquarters in Cape Town. Among the compromises that were made to get all the signatory nations on board, the Constitution permits a strong U.S. presence in this task force, so Lt. Colonel Ira Henderson is now at this headquarters too.
And since Jill is no longer Sammy's boss, she starts dating him.
It's a year after First Contact. Dr. Han is director of research into focused beam fusion at the Beijing Institute of Technology. This was the first hot-fusion technology to pass the crucial Break Even point, the holy grail of fusion power generation.
The technology works by shooting two high-speed beams of nuclei at each other, both aligned with sub-nuclear-width precision. If the two beams meet at a very precise relative velocity, a "resonance" is produced; deuterons and protons have a much larger capture cross-section for fusion in this manner than they do in ordinary thermal fusion. Proton-deuteron hot fusion works so well, in fact, that Dr. Han's team has achieved a whopping 20% reaction rate, and he's confident that with sufficient engineering the reaction rate can be raised as high as 40%. Since the reaction product is just helium-3 — no neutrons, no radioactive isotopes — there's no danger of radioactive contamination.
Dr. Han hasn't ignored the implications for the World Federal Government's defense buildup, though. One of the WFG's plans is to take all the old decomissioned ICBMs out of mothballs and make them launch-worthy again, and then to build as many new ICBMs as they can. Unlike the two ICBMs fired at the Centaurian Bogey a year ago, these new missiles will be programmed from the get-go as anti-spacecraft weapons. Nuclear fusion rocket motors could make these missiles far more compact and easier to produce.
"I was developing fusion technology to save civilization in the long run," Dr. Han explains. "It was going to take care of our energy needs and end our dependence on non-renewable fuel resources. Now it looks like we might need this technology to save civilization in the here and now."
Of all the nations on Earth, China is the most wary of the new World Federal Government. They refuse to be a signatory to the WFG Constitution. They also, of course, lay claim to Dr. Han's new proton-deuteron fusion technology and don't want to share it with anybody.
Dr. Han feels he needs to do whatever he can to get this fusion technology into the hands of the WFG's alien defense task force. When he finally arrives at WFG alien task force HQ in Cape Town, and meets up with the task force's decision makers, he feels as though a great weight has been lifted from his shoulders. He considers these to be the only sane people on the planet. He recommends building rocket engines out of his fusion reactor, and mounting them on the new ICBMs they're building. The missiles will have to be reengineered for the new propulsion technology, of course, but the enormous fuel weight savings are considered to be worth it.
Meanwhile, the task force is rushing through development and deployment of more ultraviolet space telescopes. These will be launched by old-fashioned chemically propelled launch vehicles, as the new fusion technology is still completely untried for space flight.
China learns of Dr. Han's disclosure of "state secrets" to the WFG, and sends a group from the National Security Bureau out to arrest him. The South African government agrees to cooperate with China, and allows the NSB agents into the country. Dr. Han learns of their intent and refuses to leave the protection of WFG alien task force HQ. He points out, bitterly, that China had no interest in turning his technology into a state secret when it was still in the research stage, and only decided to do so when he actually got it to work.
The WFG claims that its Alien Task Force HQ is sovereign territory, much like a Federal Enclave or an Embassy, and that therefore neither China nor South Africa has any jurisdiction within its walls. The alien task force's personnel openly defy their attempts to arrest Dr. Han. Local police order Dr. Han to leave the premises, and make threats, but refuse to enter the building until the international community sorts out the jurisdiction issue. There is no doubt that this incident will have international repercussions.
China attempts to coax Dr. Han back into their jurisdiction by arresting his family. This backfires, and the resulting public outcry forces China to release them.
Meanwhile, many nuclear missiles — both conventionally boosted and with the new fusion engines — start being built under the WFG's direction. A heck of a lot of people, particularly nationalists, are wary. They fear that the WFG is building its own nuclear arsenal, and that they'll use it (or the threat of it) against stubborn nations who don't want to toe the WFG party line. These missiles are designed to hit targets in orbit rather than on the ground, but the average person on the street doesn't know the difference. Some believe the Centaurian's aren't coming back, and that the WFG is just using the First Contact incident as a power grab. Some even believe that the whole Centaurian incident was staged from the get-go, for exactly this purpose.
Sammy is now a director at the SAAO's Cape Town facility. He doesn't get to see much of Jill anymore. His team is on the lookout for blueshifted helium emission signatures, like the one given off by the first Centaurian bogey. And now, they've discovered ten such incoming helium sources. It's official. The Centaurians are returning.
And we've caught up with the events of the Prologue.
Almost immediately, public sentiment gets behind the WFG. Opposition to the nuclear arms buildup vanishes practically overnight. But now the planetary defense effort faces a new roadblock: despair. If the Centaurians are going to wipe out humanity, why bother going to work in the morning? The economy slows. Recession runs rampant. Once again, the WFG has to rally to get humanity behind them. Keep calm, and carry on.
With streets all over the world deserted, and the WFG Alien Task Force fully mobilized for any contingency, everyone watches the Centaurian fleet tensely as all 10 starships settle into Earth orbit.
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