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THE MAPLE SYRUP WAR

Prologue

It is said that in science the greatest changes come about when some researcher says 'Hmmm. That's odd.' The same can be said for relationships: 'That's not my shade of lipstick . . . '—warfare: 'That's an odd dust cloud . . . ' Etc.

But in this case, the subject is science. And relationships. And warfare.

And things that are just ginormously huge and hard to grasp because space is like that.

 

"Hmmm . . . That's odd."

"What?"

Chris Greenstein, in spite of his name, was a gangling, good looking blond guy who most people mistook for a very pale surfer-dude. He'd found that he was great with the ladies right up until he opened his mouth. So his public persona was of tall, blond and dumb. As in mute. He had a Masters in Aeronautical Engineering and a PhD in astrophysics. The first might have gotten him a really good paying job if he could just manage to get through corporate interviews without putting his foot in his mouth. The second generally boiled down to academia or 'Do you want fries with that?' He had the same problem with academia he had with corporations.

Chris was the Third Shift Data Center Manager for Skywatch. Skywatch was an underfunded and overlooked collection of geeks, nerds and astronomy PhDs who couldn't otherwise find a job who dedicated themselves to the very important and very poorly understood job of searching the sky for stuff that could kill the world. The most dangerous were comets which, despite having the essential consistency of a slushee, moved very fast and were generally very big. And when a slushee that's the size of Manhattan Island hits a planet going faster than anything mankind could create, it doesn't just go bang. It turns into a fireball that is only different from a nuclear weapon in that it doesn't release radiation. What it does release is plasma, huge piles of flying burning rock and hot gases. Over a continent. Then the world, or the biosphere at least, more or less gets the big blue screen of death, hit reset and start all over again with some crocodiles and one or two burrowing animals.

One comet killed the dinosaurs. Most of the guys at Skywatch made not much more than minimum wage. It gives one pause.

The way that Skywatch looked for 'stuff' was anything that was quick, cheap and easy. They had databases of all the really enormous amounts of stuff, comets, asteroids, bits, pieces, minor moons, rocks and just general debris, that filled the system. They would occasionally get a contact from someone who thought that they'd found the next apocalypse. Locate, identify, headed for earth/yes/no? New?/yes/no? Most of it was automatic. Most of it was done by other people: essentially anyone with a telescope from a backyard enthusiast to the team that ran the Hubble was part of Skywatch. But thirty-five guys (including the two women) were paid (not much more than minimum wage) to sort and filter and essentially be the child of Omelas.

Chris was a nail biter. Most people who worked for Skywatch for any period of time developed some particular tick. They knew the odds of the 'Big One' happening in their lifetime were way less than winning the lottery fifteen times in a row. Even a 'Little Bang' was unlikely to occur anywhere that it mattered. A carbonaceous asteroid with a twenty-five megaton airburst yield like Tunguska was unlikely to occur over anything important. The world is seven tenth's ocean and even the land bits are surprisingly empty.

But living day in and day out with the certainty that the fate of the world is in your hands slowly wears. Most people stayed in the core of Skywatch for less than five years if for no other reason than the pay. Chris had started as a filter technician ('Yes, that's an asteroid. It's already categorized. Thank you . . . ') six years ago. He was way past his sell-by date and the blond had started going gray.

"It's a streak. But it's a really odd streak. The algorithm is saying it's a flaw."

The way that asteroids and comets are detected has to do with the way that stars are viewed. The more starlight that is collected the stronger the picture. In the old days this was done by having a photographic plate hooked up to a telescope that slowly tracked across the night sky picking up the tiny scatter of photons from the distant star. Computers only changed that in that they could resolve the image more precisely, fold, spindle and mutilate, and a CCD chip was used instead of a plate.

When you're tracking on a star, if something moves across your view it creates a streak. Asteroids and comets are closer than stars and if they are moving across your angle of view they create such a streak. If they're moving towards you it creates a small streak, across the view a large one. The angle of the sun is important. The size of the object. Etc.

Serious researchers didn't have time for streaks. But any streak could be important so they sent them to Skywatch where servers crunched the data on the streak and finally came up with whether it was an already identified streak, a new streak, a new streak that was 'bad', etc. In this case the servers were saying it was 'Odd.'

"Define odd," Chris said, bringing up the data. Skywatch researchers rarely looked at images. What he saw was a mass of numbers that to the uninformed would look something like a really huge mass of indecipherable numbers. For Chris it instantly created a picture of the object in question. And the numbers were very odd. "Nevermind. Albedo of point seven three? Perfect circle? Diameter of ten point one-four-eight kilometers? Ring shaped? Velocity of . . . ? That's not a flaw, it's a practical joke. Who'd it come from?"

"Max Planck. It's from Calar Alto. That's the problem. Germans . . ."

Calar Alto was a complex of several massive telescopes located in Andalusia in southern Spain and was a joint project of the Spanish and German governments. The German portion was the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and despite its location, Max Planck did most of the work at Calar Alto.

"Famously don't have a sense of humor," Chris said. He looked at the angle and trajectory again and shrugged. The bad part of working for Skywatch was worrying about 'The Big One'. The good part was that nothing was ever an immediate emergency. Anything spotted was probably going to take a long time to get to Earth. "Mark and categorize. It's not on a track for earth. Angle's off, velocity is all wrong. Ask Calar to do another shot when they've got a free cycle. And we'd better keep an eye on it because with that velocity it's going to shoot through the entire system in a couple of years and if it hits anything it's going to be really cool."

"You know what it looks like?"

"Yeah. A Halo. Maybe it's the Covenant."

 

Chris picked up his phone groggily and checked the number.

"Hello?"

"Chris? Sorry to wake you. It's Jon. Could you come in a little early today? We've got a manager's meeting."

"What's up?" Chris asked, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. Jon Marin was the Director of Skywatch. He knew his managers didn't get paid enough to be woken up in the middle of their, equivalent, night.

"It's Halo. There's been an . . . anomaly. We'll talk about it when you get in. We've got a video conference with Calar at four. Please try to be there."

"Yes, sir," Chris said. He looked at the time and sighed. Might as well get up, day was shot to hell anyway.

 

"Good afternoon, Doctor Heinsch . . ."

Jon Marin, in spite of his name, looked and sounded like the epitome of a New York Jewish boy. Which was what he was. His first PhD was from NYU, followed by MIT and Stanford. His brother was a top-flight attorney in New York who pulled down a phone number every year. And his mother never let him forget it. He kept trying to point out he was a doctor to no avail.

"Doctor Marin, Doctor Eisenbart, Doctor Fickle, Doctor Greenstein . . ."

"Doctor." "Doctor." "Doctor." "Doctor."

"As first discoverers we have named the object the Gudram Ring. This will, of course, have to be confirmed. But there is an anomaly we are having a hard time sorting out. We had a cycle which was doing a point to that portion of the sky but when we attempted to find the ring, it appeared to have disappeared."

"Disappeared?" Chris said. "How does something ten kilometers across disappear?"

"We wondered the same thing," Doctor Heinsch replied, soberly. "I was able to get authorization to do a sweep for it. It took three full sweeps."

"Your sweeps cost about . . . ?" Dr. Marin said.

"A million Euros for each. But something that was once there and now is not? We considered the outlay appropriate. And we were right. We finally found it. Here is the new data."

The astronomers leaned forward and regarded the information for a moment.

"It slowed down," Chris said after a moment. He finally found a finger that wasn't chewed to the quick and started nibbling. "Was there . . . It didn't have anything to cause a gravitational anomaly. It's coming in from out of the plane of the ecliptic."

Most of the 'stuff' in the inner solar system lay along a vaguely flat plane called the 'plane of ecliptic.' Earth, Mars, the asteroid belt, were all all formed when the sun was a flattened disc. The outer layers cooled and congealed into planets and then life formed and here we are. We are all star stuff.

If the ring had been coming in along the plane it might have passed a moon or planet and had a change in velocity, what was referred to as a 'delta V.' But there weren't any planets 'up' in the solar system and it was inside the Oort Cloud.

"Correct," Dr. Heinsch said as if to a particularly bright child. From the point of view of 'real' scientists, those who can do, those who can't teach and those who can't do or teach work for Skywatch.

"Is this data confirmed?" Dr. Marin asked very cautiously. Skywatch generally only made the news when they screamed 'The sky is falling!' Since every time they'd screamed that it hadn't, they'd gotten very cautious. And this wasn't the sky falling. This was . . .

"Absolutely," Dr. Heinsch said. "However, we have sent it to you in raw form. We have also contacted the Russian, Japanese and Italian Institutes."

"Yes," Dr. Marin said, nodding. "I think we need to stay very cautious about this until we have a confirm all around . . ."

"It's a space craft!" Chris blurted.

"We need to be very cautious," Dr. Marin said, turning to glare at Chris.

"But it's decelerating!" Chris said, waving at the screen. "At the current rate of delta it's going to come to rest somewhere near earth!"

"About thirty million kilometers," Dr. Heinsch said, nodding. "Between the orbits of earth and Mars in about two and a half months. What it does then, of course, is the question."

"We need definite confirmations on this before we take any action," Dr. Marin said.

"I'm sure we will have those quite quickly. I would request that you contact Palomar for their take. Good day, Doctors."

 

Planning for shots by the big telescopes of earth's major countries is blocked out months and even years in advance. They also cost a lot of money.

As the terminator circled about the globe that night, all such scheduling was put on indefinite hold and dozens of telescopes pointed to a very small patch of the sky.

There was, of course, a huge outcry amongst 'real' researchers who had grants to study oxygen production of Mira Variables that, naturally, were more important than anything else that could possibly be happening especially with those bunglers at Skywa . . . A WHAT?

And then the press found out.

 

"The Gudrum Ring has settled into a stationary position in the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point," Dr. Heinsch rumbled, looking at his notes. "The position it has taken is not entirely stable but it seems to have some form of stabilization system. Since it was able to maintain delta v such as to decelerate into the system, that ability is self-evident. However, the L2 point creates a stable point of gravitational interaction which is why so many space telescopes are placed there. Power output for stabilization is, therefore, reduced. As of now, we have no idea as to its method or purpose. Questions?"

"What is it for?" the first reporter asked.

"And I repeat, we have no idea as to its method, we don't know how it works, or its purpose, we don't know why it is here. At this moment, it is as enigmatic as the monolith from 2001 . . ."

 

"Office of the President. If you would like to leave a message for the President of the United States, press one. For the Vice President, press two. For the First Lady, press three . . ."

The phone bank for the general contact number for the White House was not in the White House. It was in a featureless office building in Reston, VA. There a group of seventy receptionists, mostly women, received calls from the general public directed at the President.

In the early days of telephone, all calls were listened to, notes taken and daily they would be collated and tracked. This took a lot of people looking over the notes and figuring out what they meant. But there were general tenors. Do a three part scale. 'I love the president so much I want his sperm.' 'The president's an idiot.' 'The president is going to die at four PM on Friday.' So then there were standard forms. Then computers came along. And Caller ID and voice recognition and automatic voice synthesis and phone trees and . . .

What the seventy people did was mostly let the computers handle it.

But if you worked the phone tree hard enough, you could get a real human being.

"Office of the President."

"This is not a prank call," a robotic voice said. "This system cannot normally block Caller ID. Please look at your Caller ID."

The receptionist looked at the readout and frowned. The Caller ID readout was a random string of numbers.

"The penalty for hacking the White House is . . ."

"Please contact your intelligence agencies and confirm that this call is coming from a satellite and has no ground based transmission. We are the Grtul, the People of the Ring. We come in peace. In five days, on your Thursday, at 12PM Greenwich Mean Time, we will call your President through a more secure means. This should give him time to clear his schedule. This will be a conference call with several of your major leaders, all of whom have been contacted or will be contacted. Please ensure your President is informed of this call. Thank you. Good bye."

 

"So . . . Do we know which secure line they're calling?" the President asked.

The Secure Room in the White House was, like most of the rooms in the White House, small. And compared to some secure rooms, not particularly secure. It had been repeatedly upgraded but when you started off with a concrete basement in a limestone building built in the 1800s there was only so much you could do. The Joint Chiefs much preferred the Tank in the Pentagon.

"We're ready no matter where it comes in, Mr. President," the Chief of Staff said. The room was more or less at capacity since nobody knew the agenda for the meeting. State, Defense, the Joint Chiefs, NSA, DNI, himself, even Treasury and Commerce had horned in. About the only member of the 'core' cabinet not present was Interior. Surprising even himself the Director of NASA had managed to get a seat.

"Nobody talks but me," the President said just as the phone rang. He took a deep breath and pressed the button for the speaker phone. "President of the United States."

"Waiting . . . Waiting . . . Present are the Presidents of the United States and Russia, Prime Ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Japan, China, India, Brazil. Each have staff present. We will not be responding to questions. We are the Grtul. We come in peace. The ring in your sky is a gate to other worlds. We produce these rings and move them into star systems. Use of the ring requires payment. The payment schedule will be sent to you. There is to be no use of hostile energy systems within three hundred thousand kilometers of the ring which are capable of damaging the ring. Anyone who pays may use the ring.

"In seven days we will make a general broadcast to the people of your planet on the subject of the ring. This will give you sufficient time to make your own statements and prevent panic.

"You have a distributed information system. We will establish a document on the information system which will give the full rules, schedules and regulations of the ring. We will include a list of answers to questions. In the last ninety million years we have been asked most conceivable questions. We will answer the three most common questions asked and then we will terminate this call.

"By 'anyone can use the ring' do we mean that another species can use it to enter your system? Yes. Does that mean that hostile or friendly forces can use it? Yes. Are you allowed to block the ring? No. Good bye."

"Hell," the President said as the phone went dead. "Those were my top questions. NASA? Input?"

"There is a real philosophical question whether there can be hostile species at the level to be able to use interstellar travel," the Director said. "The energies involved mean that survival as a species if you are innately hostile becomes difficult. If you can create a space craft that can go three hundred thousand miles in any reasonable time frame, you can more or less destroy a world. The biosphere at least. Over time, hostile species will tend to wipe themselves out."

"That's a great philosophical point," the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said. "But the fact that the Grtul mention hostile species and not fighting near the ring probably means you're more or less dead wrong. Pun intended. And according to my people, we can't even get to this thing."

"Oh, we can get there," the Director said. "We're working on a proposal for a manned space craft capable of the journey."

"Time and budget?" the President asked, wincing.

"About five years and . . . well, the budget is still being worked on."

"Under or over a trillion?" the National Security Advisor asked.

"Oh, under. Probably."

 

Two Years After First Contact

(NASA has completed preliminary studies to the studies necessary to begin preliminary design phase of the bid phase on a potential ship to reach, but not enter, the Gudrum Ring. Cost: $976 million dollars.)

The Prime Minister of Britain picked up his phone without looking. It was the ringtone of his Secretary.

"Yes, Janice?"

"Actually, my name is Andrilae Rirgo of the Glatun. I am the captain of an exploratory vessel which has just exited your Grtul Ring. We come in peace and are interested in trade."

The Prime Minister looked at the handset then at the phone which was registering a random string of numbers from the Caller ID. Just as he was getting over the shock the door opened and his Secretary started waving her arms frantically. He was able to read her lips well enough to get the words 'Gate emergence'. The rather graphic hand motions, not to mention his current conversation, helped. He nodded at her and went back to his conversation.

"Well, uh, Mr . . . Rirgo did you say? Welcome to earth."

 

"So we really don't have anything they want?" the President said.

"No, sir," the Commerce Secretary said. "The computer chips they're offering are centuries more advanced than anything we produce. Enormous storage and something close to infinite parallel processing. They also integrate with terrestrial systems seamlessly. Somehow. The IT experts are scratching their head as to how. But why they can just take over our systems is now pretty obvious. The chips are more like viruses than computers. But what they mainly want is precious metals. Specifically the platinum group which are pretty rare. Also gold."

"Do we mine those?" the President asked.

"We do in small quantities," Interior said. "More in Canada. Most are extracted from nickel and copper mining. Most of the world's deposits are in South Africa or Russia."

"Damnit."

 

Three Years After First Contact

"This had better be important," the President said as he entered the Situation Room. The Secret Service had practically yanked him out of a meeting with the Saudi Ambassador.

"We've had a gate emergence," the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said over the video link.

"We've had those every few months for the last year," the President pointed out. "Mostly what I suppose could be tramp freighters, no offense to our Glatun friends intended."

It had quickly become apparent that even tramp freighter captains could access any electronic transmission. This had less to do with the super advanced chips they traded, for enormous amounts of heavy metals or anything else that seemed of some worth, than their software systems and implant technology. Efforts to duplicate their information technology had so far been unsuccessful and most experts put humans as at least five hundred years behind current Glatun technology.

"Not Glatun. The ship looks like a warship and isn't responding to our standard hails."

"Is it . . . big?" the President asked. He'd been elected on the basis of his domestic programs and wasn't quite up to speed on international affairs much less interstellar.

"It really doesn't matter how big it is, Mr. President," the Admiral in command of Space Command responded. "We still don't get the engineering of Glatun reactionless drive or their power systems. So we're grounded. If it's a warship it's going to be able to hold the orbitals. And who holds the orbitals, holds the world."

"Oh."

* * *

"All stocks of precious metals," the Secretary of State said. "Private, corporate and governmental. We can keep enough stock of gold to keep the IT industry running but that's it. We pointed out that it would make us more efficient at extraction and they accepted the argument but palladium, which turns out is important for hard drives, has to be turned over. That's for all the world's governments. Or our cities get what Mexico City, Shanghai and Cairo got. Pony up and the Horvath won't nuke the rest of the world."

"Technically they weren't nukes," SpacCom pointed out. "They were kinetic energy weapons. Practical effect is similar but no fallout thank God.

"Why those three?" the President asked. "Did they say?"

"No, sir," SpacCom said. "But if you've ever seen a night shot of the world it's pretty obvious. They picked the three that are most noticeable. Since we're in a shield room I'll point out that that was a pretty poor choice on their part. I don't think they'd developed full intel on the planet. Doesn't really matter but it's a potential chink in their armor. They're not gods."

"True," the JCS said. "But we also can't fight them. Recommendation of the JCS is that we pay the tribute and try to get the Glatun to intervene. We just can't fight them."

"So are we going to have them landing here?" the President asked. "If so there's going to be a major security situation."

"So far we haven't even seen the Horvath," the Secretary of State said. "All discussion has been electronic or with their robots. As to where they are landing . . ." She nodded at the Secretaries of Commerce and Interior.

"We and Canada will ship our small amount of production to South Africa which will handle the transfer," Commerce said. "There will only be landings in South Africa and Russia. And only to pick up refined metals. They appear to want to keep the world running so that we can fill their holds. Not that we can; the whole world's production amounts to a few dozen tons a year."

SpacCom looked a bit irritated for a moment, possibly because his aide had touched him on the arm, then grunted.

"What I don't get is why they're getting them on the planet," SpacCom said. "According to my experts, most of this stuff is to be found in asteroids. We've got a ton of asteroids just cluttering up the damned system. Most of what we mine is from asteroids that have crashed into the earth. Why not just mine the asteroid belt?"

"Possibly because then slaves don't do it for them," the President said, dryly.

 

"It's a matter of what your world calls realpolitik," the Glatun representative said, politely. The Glatun was a bit over a meter and a half tall biped with blue skin, red eyes, a vaguely pig-like head and snout and a mane of white fur running down his back. He was dressed in an informal tunic for the discussion which was, in diplospeak, 'non-binding and informal.' Which was where all the really serious binding resolutions were always hammered out.

"We have called for the Horvath to remove themselves from your world's orbitals and they have chosen to ignore our requests. Since Earth is, to them, a very good conquest, relatively rich in heavy metals compared to Horvath, they won't leave absent either armed confrontation or, possibly, a trade embargo. Since Earth has, essentially, little or no value to the Glatun Federation, we have a sufficiency of strategic metals, and there are negative aspects to both choices on our part we must unfortunately state that we remain neutral in this dispute."

"We have . . . an extensive asteroid belt," the Undersecretary of State for Interstellar Affairs said, throwing in her only bone. "We believe it to be rich in the platinum group."

"For which you should be grateful," the Glatun replied. "Most inhabited systems are mined out. However, our laws, and long experience, prevent us from mining your asteroid belt as long as there is not a centralized, or at least effectively sovereign, system government. The Horvath meet the definition, not the United States of America. Certainly not the UN. The Horvath have, also, offered the asteroid belt. Be equally grateful that we declined that offer. There are enormous problems with asteroid mining. It requires quite large lasers and fabbers and is fuel and energy intensive. To make it worthwhile for a Glatun corporation to invest in this system would require long-term leases. In the current security and political situation the Glatun Federation would not permit such legally binding contracts."

"We're on our own." The USSIA finally said, becoming decidedly informal. "We have sixteen million dead, three major cities in ashes and you're neutral?"

"Since we are speaking frankly," the Glatun said. "The decision of our policy makers is that Earth is simply sufficiently unknown and unnoticeable to take the chance of losing credibility in a minor dispute. The reality is that the Horvath, who are not much more advanced than Earth, would probably leave if so much as a single Glatun destroyer entered the system and ordered them to do so. However, if they didn't and shots were fired, much less loss of Glatun life, there would be questions asked in Parliament, AI queries and of course the press would simply go wild. It is easier and safer to do nothing. Absent Earth becoming more of a hot-topic in the Glatun Federation or becoming in some way strategically important, yes, you are on your own."

 

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