Chapter Fourteen: The Rowing Wheel.
GPS Ground Control Station, Diego Garcia, Indian Ocean.
“Master Sergeant, there goes another one!” shouted Airman Taylor.
In the dim control room, the glow of the computer screen threw deep shadows across his face. The Master Sergeant’s head jerked up from his console.
Taylor looked frightened.
“Another satellite has gone offline, Sir.”
The Master Sergeant crossed to Taylor’s station and peered over his shoulder. Taking in the information on the display, he picked up the phone handset beside Taylor’s keyboard and punched in a number.
“This is Steinmetz at Diego Garcia. We’ve lost signal from three GPS birds in the past fifteen minutes. We’re running … hold on.”
Taylor was gesturing to the screen and holding up four fingers. Steinmetz raised his eyebrows and Taylor nodded.
“Make that four; all four satellites in orbit-plane C have gone dark. We’re running diagnostics now but the degradation of accuracy and intel from other ground stations is consistent with shutdown of four birds.”
The voice on the other end spoke briefly.
“No sir, we have no idea. Terrorist action is not presumed at this time.”
Again, Steinmetz listened.
“No sir, they could not be shut down by a foreign power. We encrypt all the tasking commands. It would have to be done from within our own control systems.”
The voice barked down the phone again then rang off.
Over the next two hours, ground-control stations around the world monitored the failure of every satellite in the GPS system. The world felt the effect immediately. Airline pilots and ships’ steersmen reported failures in navigation systems. Cellular networks that relied on timing signals from the GPS system collapsed. NATO countries went on high alert and the United States went to DEFCON Three.
The assumption was that the satellites had shut down. It did not occur to anyone they were physically gone. They presumed such a thing was impossible.
They presumed wrong.
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, USA.
The ground controllers of the Hubble Space Telescope were the first to see the strange craft. When the first GPS satellites had gone offline, the US Air Force had requested the telescope be re-tasked to look in the direction of the failed birds.
Dr. James King and a few colleagues were huddled around a cluster of computer monitors, examining the area of space where they expected the GPS satellites to be. A US Air Force Major stood behind them.
“Wait a minute,” said someone. “What’s that?”
There was an object near one of the GPS satellites. It might have been an optical glitch until it shifted slightly and glinted in reflected earthlight. King zoomed the telescope in for a closer look.
It was a spacecraft.
From a distance, it looked like a dark metal disc with gold strips traversing it. They zoomed closer until the craft filled the screen. At first, the image was blurred, then the computers finished their sharpening algorithms and revealed the craft in exquisite detail.
“No freaking way!” said one of the observers.
The Major pushed between two civilian scientists and leaned into the screen. As finer images of the craft arrived, the particulars of its construction became clear. None of them could believe what they were seeing.
“Is that … wood?” asked the Major.
The craft was constructed of huge planks of timber, treated until pitch black, and overlapping like a clinker-built rowboat. The planks must have come from trees that were in excess of five-hundred meters tall, and the designers had curved and shaped the planks to make a perfect wheel-shaped craft. Along the fascia of every third plank was a strip of bronze embossed with geometric patterns.
“This is incredible! Look at those symbols,” said Dr. King. “They’re all Celtic. That’s a triskelion, and that’s a triquetra.
“I don’t know what we’re seeing here,” said one of King’s associates, “but I doubt the Irish are sending up flying saucers made of wood – or any other spacecraft for that matter.”
A snicker went round the group. The Major cleared his throat and looked pointedly at Dr. King. King’s eyes flicked back and forth, his mind racing.
“Well, this is a trick,” said King. “It has to be. Someone’s playing an elaborate practical joke on us.”
The Major bristled.
“Our GPS systems are offline, and we have a bogey parked in the same orbit as our satellites – I don’t see any joke here, Doctor.”
“With respect Major, that’s not what I’m saying. This can’t be real. A wooden spacecraft is not viable, so it’s more likely someone is interlacing these images into the video feed from Hubble.”
“Yeah? And how do you explain the GPS failures?”
They were arguing among themselves when the Major got his answer.
“What the hell is that?” said King, pointing at the screen.
A bubble of energy appeared at the edge of the craft, at first indistinct and almost hidden by King’s finger on the screen. The Major slapped his hand out of the way. In seconds, the bubble elongated and flattened out into a shimmering vertical disc. It looked like a thin film of soapy water in a child’s bubble-blowing loop. The disc moved away from the craft towards the nearest GPS satellite, growing all the time. It intercepted the satellite and scrubbed across it like a cosmic eraser. The satellite and the shimmering disc winked out of existence.
The Major strode away and reached for a telephone.
“Did anyone else just see that?” asked King.
Everyone had but no one could believe it.
And then things got stranger.
Many apertures opened in the edge of the craft, and out from each slid a long pole with a flattened blade on the end, energy fields arcing and dancing around the blades. Another bubble formed at the edge of the vehicle and snapped open to form another larger portal. In perfect synchronization, the poles started an elliptical rowing motion and after a brief pause, the craft rowed smoothly into the shimmering disc and disappeared.