By Charles Matthias
Colonel Throckmorton of the United States Space Forces was enjoying a nice cup of cocoa as he read the latest football scores from the recently printed USA Today. Though the print media was being used less and less in this computer age, it was still one of the primary modes for the transportation of information. There was simply too large an industry for it to completely disappear over night. Most major papers printed both electronically and on recycled paper. It was more cost effective to do both, since both mediums were still used by large sections of the population. It was theorized that in another generation or two, most major papers would simply sell off their printing presses to local museums. Of course, Throckmorton would be one of those unfortunate souls who had to give up the paper when that time came, for he was one of those few who were still individuals.
Throckmorton was not unfamiliar with computers, far from it, he helped revolutionize the Space Force in their use of computer technology; he had accomplished this by completely rewriting the code under which they stored all of their information and tracked the progress of their shuttles. Though he did nothing with hardware, his software achievements helped him rise to the position that he was in today. He was, under most circumstances the last authority on homebase, and not another soul could dare tell him what to do. Of course, if one of the general staff decided to come out of their prissy Washington offices, or if the Secretary of Space herself made an appearance, then he would have to cede authority, but until that happened, he was in charge.
He was not an ambitious man, a seventy-year-old computer programmer who had earned his degree in computer science back in the twentieth century during the Millennial Bug crisis. He had taken it upon himself to learn as many computer languages as possible, his whole dream in life to rewrite the entire code for at least one major industry. He had done it for five. A nearly two hundred year old law firm, which had been having difficulty finding programmers in COBOL had picked him up with a very generous starting income. Most of his classmates had laughed at him when he spent his time fooling with Fortran, ADA, or any of those other ancient programming languages that had first been performed with punch cards. He had been the youngest of that generation which saved the United States from financial meltdown, and for that his career had been set.
It only took him a matter of time before he began moving up in the ranks. He was soon hired by a chemical technicians firms which needed their inventory system completely revamped, considering the old programming was running out of compute cycles to handle all the complex equations that were necessary with the advances in polymer and organic sciences. His programming skills had been of the highest import, and at the same time he began to gain an understanding of the basic principles of the sciences, and how the Universe worked together. He also discovered a wonderful thing called management, which in those days were going through several different styles of approach. He mastered the techniques of creative reporting, and was soon promoted to head programmer for the firm. His only complaint about that job was that it was more of a management position, not a programming one. For some reason, he was not yet satisfied.
He moved on in the world, ignoring all obstacles about him, be they his family or friends, it didn't matter; he was determined to achieve his goal in life, to actualize the dream that he had possessed since his youth. Moving along, he was hired by a defense contractor to sort through the billions of line of code that they used and rewrite them using higher level languages and object oriented approaches. It took him nearly five years before the entire project was complete, and many times they planned on bringing new workers into the project, but this was his baby, and he was not going to let another touch any line of the precious code that he was reorganizing. His efforts to monopolize the effort did not go unnoticed, but more workers were hired anyway. Throckmorton was forced to not only reorganize the code that he was assigned, but he also stole what his fellow workers did, and rewrote them behind their backs.
He was caught eventually, but not until after the entire project was complete. It cost him his job, but he didn't care, every last line of code in their program was his, not a single one got left out of the mix. However, the news of his roguish behavior got around to the industries, and he was unable to get any serious job in programming for several years. He had even a worse time of it, as his father died in a car accident only a year later. Though he had tried to stay away from his parents at the time, his father's death hit him close to home. He had not spent enough time with them; he never really had gotten to know his father, and the fact that he never could hurt him greatly.
Throckmorton made up for that by spending time with his mother. It was for this reason that he missed out on the revolutionary ideas of the 2010ís that changed much of the world as he knew it. In his opinion of course, it was for the worse. Concerns of privacy were washed away, and identity began to become meaningless in the post 2020 world. His struggle to escape the overwhelming pressure to fit in the crowd found its avenue of expression in the art of computer programming. He synthesized many of the common features of the programming languages of the day into an all-encompassing language that far surpassed anything of its day. True, his time in the programming field was log since passed, and much better languages had been created, but in its day, the name 'Throckmorton' was on every computer programmer's lips. It was heralded the greatest achievement since C++ stormed the computer world. Within one year, it beat out Python as the most used VHLL in the entire world.
Of course he spent his time at home with his mother, as they continued their struggle for identity in a post-individualistic world. Because of his achievement, he was practically bombarded with job offers. However, he turned each and every one of them down, none affording him the kind of control over the programming aspect that he wanted. However, one company finally recognized the need they had of a complete restructuring. Once a giant, they had fallen into disgrace in recent years as their once powerful monopoly crumbled beneath their feet. While their near king of a CEO remained in place, they were unable to take action to correct the problems of excess and largesse that their company had created; after his death however, they hired Throckmorton to rework their entire system, since it still used an old system designed by their recently deceased CEO. It was based in a very waspish operating system that had long since fallen out of use because of its viscous monolithic habits. It took him seven years to completely rework the system, but once he was finished reprogramming everything into his own computer language, Microsoft was no longer a name that people cautiously laughed at, it had once again become a major player (but by no means the player it once was) on the computing technologies scene.
Of course he couldn't take all the credit, though he'd have like to. It was a team effort that brought them back from bankruptcy. However, the name that was on everybody's lips once again was 'Throckmorton'. He was now in his fifties, still living with his mother in a very large house out in the Wyoming foothills. Job offers, all of them in the millions came to him now, none of them asking him to leave his home. He turned them all down, preferring to hold a maintenance position at Microsoft; he steadfastly refused to be their CEO. That would involve him moving, and he was not going to leave his mother alone, not even for a single day.
Since the death of his father, he had grown closer to his mother, and through her, he began to know and appreciate his father. He was an honorable man, serving in the military, having fought in the gulf War, and other operations that he couldn't speak about. He spent many months away from home, and he could not tell her why. Even through all of that, she had remained strong, and he had remained devoted to her. He was a father that he wished he could have spent more time with, and this grated on him in the severest possible way. Searching through some of his old things, he had found many of his father's various honors and badges, plus his uniform, which remained immaculate. This man, this humble honest man who had faithfully served not only his wife but also his country and had died of a simple accident had left behind a legacy greater than Throckmorton could ever hope to surpass by his business dealings and continual computer programming. No matter how many people called upon his name, no matter how many people whispered it along the halls of the Internet, he was forever in the shadow of this man far greater than he. How could he live up to the man that he had never let himself know, the man that he owed his very existence too.
It was thus that he accepted the job offer from the Space division to reprogram their computer systems. It was military, and he was forced to go through a modified training course to get him into the proper shape for service. Although it was evident that he would never see actual combat, he would meet the minimum standards for service, though he was going to be invested as a full Major from the outset based upon his wide ranging experience, and overwhelming ability with languages. The only thing was, he would be forced to leave his mother behind. It was with a tear in her eye, and the knowledge that her husband was smiling from the grave that she watched him go, her fifty year old son, joining the military for the first time, his father's dream fulfilled. He would serve his country too.
His mother died the next year, though at this funeral there were no tears. He happily and contentedly laid the flowers over her tomb, which lay next to the man which she had watched go nearly thirty years ago. She had given him everything back that he had squandered in his youth. She had given him back the man that he had never had time for, the one whom he ran from at their first chance he got, the one whom he had never let get close to him. Throckmorton owed her everything, and he would not disappoint her. He was sorry to see her go, but she had already given him everything she could, and she could now die happily, knowing that their would be much happiness on the otherside when she was reunited with the man that had been her faithful husband. Finally, their son was a man.
It had taken him fifty year to grow up, but in that time he had learned many things, each of which helped him in his latest job with the Space Force. He devoured it eagerly, feeling the joy of having total control over the entire line of code. Given the miracle job that he had performed on the Microsoft computers, he was given nearly full control of his job parameters. He had certain goals to accomplish, as well as certain suggestions that he could reach if he so desired. He surpassed all expectations, and in record time as well. In three years time, the entire Space Force computer systems had been reorganized with absolutely no switchover problems, and complete compatibility with existing and future products. Also, he learned more about the Space program and the various activities and research and military actions that they took than anybody else did on staff. He did not flaunt this knowledge, for he was not supposed to know everything about what they did, but when he had to work with everything, it was a natural byproduct.
However, the fact that he was so informed came out in one of his monthly oral reviews. Given that, and the management skills that he had picked up working in the private sector for thirty years, he was soon in line for promotion to a much higher rank. It was his greatest break that the general manager of the homebase retired from the force only that next year. He was quickly installed, and promoted to the rank of Colonel. It had been that way for four years, and it probably would be that way until he left the force. He did not want to rise any higher in the ranks; he was quite content where he was. It afforded him complete control over the entire space program if he kept things running smoothly enough, and it gave him every once in a while the excuse to reprogram something to make it work better and more to his satisfaction. Plus, it gave him access to find out more about what his father had really done.
He had only needed to see one file on his father's activities during his time in the military to know better than to look again. The man that had been such a devoted family man was one of the most black of officers, ordering men to do things that made Throckmorton's stomach curl, but also one of the sanest men and most determined he had ever heard of, or at least, knew personally. He was clearly committed to his country, and was not going to take any chance that it would be harmed in anyway. His presence on black operations was a bit of a surprise, but to a strong man, one who was willing to go to any length to save the world that he so loved, it should have been only natural. His team was his family, the sole member that had ever failed him being his only son, Edward P. Throckmorton. He would not fail him again; he would save his country everyday, even if it only involved getting up to go to work in the morning.
Of course, already he knew that today was not going to be one of those days in which he could just breeze through work, read the paper, write a few programs to solve the Mandelbrot equations, and polish his boots and brass wings. Throckmorton knew this mainly because he had been woken up last night and told that one of the ships under his command had gone drastically off course. He had given the caller instructions for Major Brucker, a stolid military man with a devotional sense of duty, and had retired once again for the night. Now it was nearly ten in the morning, and everything seemed all right. The ship was back on course again, although slightly modified, and in need of refueling. He authorized the refueling ship to begin preparations. They could have send a ship up anyday of the week, but since there was no real emergency, it could wait for the most cost effective window, which would be in a week.
However, when Major Brucker, a large Nordic man who's crew cut blonde mane only added to his fierce appearance, came striding into his office that morning as he sipped on his cocoa checking out the score of the Saints-Falcons game -- New Orleans 45, Atlanta 28 -- with a memo under one arm, he was not too surprised.
"What is it Major Brucker?" he asked casually, turning to look at the standings.
"This call just came in from the Pytheas, sir," Brucker handed him the report, with a little swagger in his stroll.
Throckmorton usually adhered to the standards of protocol, and insisted that all of his soldiers salute to him on entrance. Of course, sometimes he lapsed back into the days when he was a civilian, and not a proud man of the service. It took a glare from his father's picture, which sat on the front of his desk to remind him of who he was now. He held his hand firmly tucked to one side of his forehead, and Brucker snapped his to his forehead as well. He gave the peremptory signal, and then smiled, "At ease, officer. Take a seat."
Brucker loosened up, and set himself carefully down in the leftmost chair in his office. He thumbed through the message casually, tracing the words down, until he hut one particular word. He then looked up at Brucker, a little skeptically, "Now this is from the Pytheas?"
"That's correct, sir. We received that message only ten minutes ago. Given their current orbit, I'd say it was sent to us only thirteen minutes ago," Brucker replied quite calmly, though he looked a little befuddled.
"Why did it take ten minutes to get to me?"
"The communications team wanted to authenticate the message first, sir."
Throckmorton stared at that one word again, "I can imagine why they did that. This looks more like a joke than anything else." A sudden thought occurred to him as he continued to glance at the text. It was standard format, and looked clearly like it was typed by a man in desperation, spelling errors in nearly every other word. "The Pytheas is the ship with that religious group on a pilgrimage to see the full moon; the Shapeshifters, correct?"
"Yes, sir. One of them, Lars Thordegaard, alias Ascot, was shot last night when he sailed the ship into a Venusian orbit."
"Have you read this message yet?" Throckmorton held it aloft, pointing it into his face. Even after he skimmed it, he could not believe that it was serious. Already, his mind had come to the conclusion that this was a joke on somebody's part. However, it was best to assume that they might be telling the truth. If they could get in contact with the Captain, then they would be able to confirm this transmission.
"Yes, sir. I read it before bringing it up. I needed your input, I knew that something this strange would require your attention," Brucker admitted.
"Then you realize what they are claiming?"
"They are claiming that they are under attack by a werewolf, sir," Brucker admitted quite skeptically.
"Yes, I myself am amazed at this. I want this place closed to the media immediately, at least until we either confirm or reject this message's authenticity. What we need to do is get in contact with the captain of the Pytheas, and find out whether he authorized this order. Have you tried calling them back?"
"That was the first thing we tried, there was no response, sir."
Throckmorton sighed; this was definitely a day in which he was going to have to do more than just show up to save the country. "How about on the wireless communication. If they won't answer us through the main terminal, then presumably we can call them on their personal communicators."
"Certainly sir, as long as we know the frequency they are using."
"And only the Secretary of Space has those numbers," Throckmorton completed the thought. "Now, I am not about to call her until I know for certain whether this is authentic or not. Regulations say I should call her simply because there is no response from the main bridge, but it might be just a minor error, and she isn't even in the U.S. right now, so I don't really want to have to bug her. I'm not notifying the general staff yet, perhaps later, after the extent of the danger is known. Right now though, we have to figure out that frequency, how do we do it?"
"Well, we can get in touch with their computer, but we cannot give their computer any orders from here, unless they turn the override off."
"Oh that's right, the Pytheas is Havergal Rhodes's ship. Of course he would have turned the override switch on as soon as he was in orbit." Throckmorton smiled sardonically.
"I thought you liked Captain Rhodes?"
"I do, he kind of reminds me of myself, a free spirit, a true individual. We don't have too many of those anymore. It's just that he is also an impossible man who does not know how to follow orders and procedures."
Brucker laughed slightly, "Come on Colonel, you're living in the past again. Individualism has been the 'in' thing for the past fifteen or so years."
"Excuse me Major, but I don't think individualism has ever been the 'in' thing, even we people say it is. It's sort of an oxymoron, if you know what I mean." Throckmorton smiled slightly, admiring the play on words.
"At any rate, I suggest we head down to MOCR. This needs our attention." Throckmorton took a quick gulp of his cocoa, trying not to appear in pain when the hot liquid seared down his throat; he regained his composure within seconds. He then rose to his feet; his legs still strong and youthful even after all these years. The one benefit of being in the military in his advanced age, aside from satisfying his sense of duty to his father and country, was that it kept him in healthy condition. Statistically speaking, he had about fifteen more years left in him, but with his current condition he was more likely to last twenty or twenty-five.
Brucker stood as well, coming to attention, and walking swiftly out his office door. His office was not the most lavish of places, more utilitarian than anything else, but it was the sort of place one could kick back and relax after a hard days work in almost any field. The view through the screen in the back could be modified for almost any form of scenery that one desired. Normally he liked to peer out at a scene strikingly similar to his old Wyoming home, but on occasion he was tempted enough to switch it to a scene underwater or out in space.
Walking out of his office, right alongside the Major, he handed the report back to Brucker, and then walked commandingly down the hallway. It was typical government production, smooth walls with glass along one side so that he could peer into MOCR -- a large terraced room packed with computer screens and readouts and terminals and communications equipment. People milled to and fro, almost like ants as they relayed information back and forth, collaborating data, and contacting the shuttles in times of need. The level of activity was greater due to the apparent jeopardy that the Pytheas was in. Throckmorton found the excitement a bit unprofessional, and he imagined that there were a few snickers going about from the message that had been sent. If what was said was even close to the truth, then the situation was worse than they could have ever expected. If it was the result of letting those Shapeshifters go into orbit, than he would have some serious words to impart to the beloved Secretary of Space.
MOCR was not the sort of place that he wanted to spend all of his time, but given the current situation, it looked like he had little choice. It was crowded, and even though he did have a flotilla upon which to stand above the heads of everybody else, it was still congested for him. Throckmorton had always been the person who had stayed in the room by himself with the multitude of computer terminals, solving all of the coding problems of a corporation. This sort of environment change was shocking, though one that he had grow accustomed to, though by no means appreciative of during his time as the Colonel of the homebase.
He worked his way to the central tier with Major Brucker at his side. He glanced at the central monitor at the back of the room; it was a graphical representation of the location of all five ships presently in space orbit. One was making a survey orbit about Jupiter, two others were on their way to and from Mars, a fourth a common supplies ship on its way to the delta space station -- intercept in one hour -- and then to the moon colony. It wasn't really a colony, more like a research station, but the more avid fans of the great masters of science fiction had decided to title it a colony. In another generation or two, it might eventually house families and people planning to live there, sort of as an experiment to see if it was possible, but not any time soon. The fifth ship, the Pytheas, was circling the far side of the moon, which was presently facing the sun, and had a red indicator next to the ship name.
"Bring up detail on the Pytheas on center screen," Throckmorton called out. It took only a second, before the image of the tiny craft exploded into a simulated picture of the Pytheas circling now a slice of the moon as the statistical information on the Pytheas was listed down one side. It listed such information as crew, total passengers, as well as important information such as oxygen reserves, tons of fuel remaining, and longevity of present orbit. Their orbit and oxygen were not the problems, both were going to last quite some time. The problem was in the amount of fuel remaining, it was not enough to get them back to Earth.
"Bring up main screen," Throckmorton called out again. He contemplated that, wondering if that was the reason why the message had been sent. Of course, that was ridiculous, since he had heard about it last night, or early in the morning, whichever one was more convenient. He stepped down from his raised platform, and began to walk through the terraced pathways. He glanced at the monitors, noting the ones that had information about Pytheas were all in one section, which was as it should be. He then glanced about, wondering if he was going to find her face in the room. There she was, blonde curls and all, sitting demurely talking into a headmike as she glanced at her luscious red nails. She saw the two of them approaching, but continued her conversation anyway.
Throckmorton stepped up to her console, and flipped the transmit switch to off, and looked her in the face. She stared impudently up at him, "Hey, I was broadcasting!"
"Not anymore, this exercise has just become classified, and no PA officers are allowed in MOCR during such times. You're going to have to leave."
She smiled broadly at both of them, "Is it important?"
"Obviously it's important or I wouldn't be asking you to leave." Throckmorton liked her as a person, but sometimes, she could be downright irritating.
She stood from her seat, taking her headphones off, "All right, I guess I'll call my office and tell them that I was ejected from Mission Control. You think you guys could do this a little less often?"
Throckmorton smiled back at her, "Young lady, we are only here to save the country, not your pride."
She smiled winsomely at him as she began striding away in her heels. Brucker sighed, "Mrs. Clarendon is very insistent that she know everything that is going on. I had to tear a communiqué out of her hands last week."
"Well, if we left her in here, then she would tell the world that our crew was jeopardized by a creature that doesn't exist. We don't need another public embarrassment, not after what happened with the Marco Polo."
"At any rate, let's get back to what we are supposed to be doing. I want to see the Pytheas's communications grid." Throckmorton led the two of them in the opposite direction of the strutting Mrs. Clarendon. Neither of them noticed when she deftly pulled a sheet of paper out of the copier and stuffed it into her attaché case.
The communications grid for the Pytheas was run from a network of three computer terminals. It was a familiar design, as Throckmorton himself had programmed the interface. From here they could easily communicate with the main transceiver, which was located on the bridge of the Pytheas, as well as monitor any other standard device that was being utilized on board the ship. For example, one monitor had a display of the fluctuations in the gravity field being generated by the engine core and the subbasement reactors. However, that was not quite what he was interested in. He wanted to know if there was a way to determine the frequencies of their personal communicators.
"So, is it possible?" he asked the technician after explaining the sitation to him. He seemed quite flabbergasted to be burdened by such a task, but he tried his very best to not look too flustered.
"Well, I guess it is possible. The wireless communications send out a wide radio beacon that can be heard in all areas with minimal magnetic disturbance. It might be possible to fire our own radio broadcast to the ship, and then analyze the shape of the return signal to determine what the frequency they're using is. Of course, that would require them to be talking to each other." the technician shrugged.
"How long before you can set up a satellite to make that sort of broadcast?" Throckmorton pondered.
"I'm not sure. We already have a hook up, but we'll need to reprogram the burst to be continuous instead of intervallic. Other than that, we should be able to do it immediately. Now, to analyze the frequency, that might take a bit of time. I'm not really sure how long."
"Well, you'll have thirty minutes to uncover the frequency before I call the General Staff and the Secretary."
"I'll need to reprogram the code first, and I don't know how long that will take," the technician protested.
Throckmorton smiled mischievously, "You leave that to me."
"Colonel?" Brucker seemed a bit surprised by that.
"Brucker, you know that's why I got the job. Just let me go back to my office, and I'll have an attachment, which will temporarily suspend the normal instructions for you in about five minutes. Brucker, make sure that nothing leaves this room. We are about to break procedure, and I don't want anybody to take the blame for it but me."
"Understood, sir." Brucker nodded as Throckmorton began dashing back to his room. Today was going to be a good day; he was going to get a chance to reprogram some code. Anyday in which that happened couldn't be all bad.
Part IX continued!
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