Chapter 1: Flight Plan

The White House, Washington D.C.

If all of human history could be compressed into a single idiom, it would probably be "Playing with Fire." On the one hand, mankind has always prided itself in advancement through pushing boundaries, whether social, technological, or geographical. On the other, fire can and will eventually burn you.

This was also the idiom running through Defense Secretary Clayton's mind as he sat on one of the Oval Office's couches and considered the request of the Japanese man sitting across from him.

Japanese Minister of Defense Taro Kano was not smiling, a true rarity for a Japanese man conducting business. Clayton could recall the polite grins and head-bobbing nods he would see whenever the Japanese came to talk to him directly. Even in the aftermath of the Hakone Incident, the Ambassador would speak of the case as if it was no worse than a glass of spilled milk. The same ambassador was sitting next to Kano now, and looked like he was about to be sick.

"I take it that you understand the gravity of what you're asking us to do," Clayton said, flipping back through the report a second time. "I would hope that General Hazama does too, considering the contents of this dossier."

"We believe the report assembled by First Lieutenant Yanagida to be accurate," Taro said. "If the threat is as real as Lieutenant Youji makes it out to be, then this is the first time that the JSDF have encountered something that we don't have a home-made response for."

"IF the threat is real," Clayton countered, placing emphasis on the first word. "If it isn't then we would look pretty stupid if word of this ever gets out. Understand, Mr. Kano, that we are already on thin ice over Hakone—"

"Which our friends in the Japanese government have been very cooperative in keeping quiet about," President Dirrel stated from his desk at the other end of the room. The man had a grim smile on his face, and Clayton wondered if the President wasn't thinking back to the many loud arguments that had taken place in the Pentagon.

The past several weeks had been a minimally publicized hell, but hell nonetheless. The National Security Advisor had been fired outright, and the directors of the CIA and DIA had both quietly handed in their resignations. The Secretary of State had almost resigned over the news as well, but had been encouraged to remain, at least for a few months, to keep up an air of normalcy in the administration. If Clayton hadn't been at a NATO summit during the whole incident, he reflected, his head might have joined the others on the chopping block.

The American public knew little about the Hakone incident, the only noticeable change beyond the top-level personnel had been the unannounced and unpublicized addition of stars to the CIA memorial wall. A vague statement by a female JSDF member at a Ginza ceremony had gone largely unnoticed. Even so, the truth was that Japan now had America's President in just as troublesome a position as the President had once placed Prime Minister Motoi… and that was just the international scene. Dirrel had been forced to blow through an immense amount of political capital to get the Senate and House minority leaders to keep quiet, and the concessions involved had sealed the fact that he would not be running for reelection.

"The suggested measure would make Hakone look like a joke in comparison," Clayton concluded.

Taro shrugged. "We recognize that this is a difficult decision, but surely you must see the long-term dangers posed to us, and potentially, the whole world. What can we offer?"

"You know what we want," Dirrel said.

"Aside from full, unrestricted military access to the Special Region," the Ambassador clarified. "We are deeply sorry, Mr. President, but that is still off the table."

"Thought so." The President turned to Clayton. "Rob, thoughts?"

"There are a handful of scientific phenomena from the Special Region that we had been hoping to study," Clayton said. "If you would, perhaps, be willing to share some samples…"

"It is only reasonable." The Ambassador nodded. "Very well. Prepare a list and our field operators will find these samples for you."

The two groups stood and, after a round of handshakes, Taro asked, "Out of personal curiosity, how will you be explaining this to your constituents?"

The Secretary of Defense chuckled and said, "Americans are, first and foremost, pioneers. How will we explain it, Mr. Taro? We will tell them that we are pioneering!"


Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida

Dr. Carol Dawson swept her hand towards the giant structure behind her. "There you have it," she said. "America's best rocket… at least, according to ULA."

She was leading a small private tour around Launch Complex 41, a facility that had been jointly operated by Boeing and Lockheed Martin for decades, and they had finally arrived at the Vertical Integration Building. The massive doors on the skyscraper-like structure were open, allowing her guests to see the vehicle within.

"The Atlas V booster, that's the orange part there, is just under a hundred-fifty feet, half the length of a football field. That white part art the top, the fairing, can be up to another fifty feet long, but we're using a slightly shorter one for Thursday's launch."

Carol looked to the VIP of her tour for a reaction. The Florida State Senator folded his arms and looked the rocket from top to bottom, clearly admiring without really comprehending what he was looking at. Not that Carol minded. The Senator's wife was gleefully snapping pictures with her cellphone camera as her five-year-old son bounced up and down shouting, "Look mom, it's a real, REAL rocket!" Even if the Senator didn't understand, if the wife and kid were happy, it usually meant more cooperation from the state government when it came to funding, and Carol knew that NASA would gladly take whatever it could get.

"So, for this one, where do the astronauts go?" the wife asked, swiping rapidly at her cellphone screen to increase the zoom.

Carol buried her frustration. Public Relations had told the group from the beginning that this was a payload rocket, not a manned vehicle, but most of the American public, as much as they loved NASA, didn't seem to understand much about spaceflight.

"So, if astronauts were flying on this rocket, they'd go at the top, up there," Carol said, pointing. "In fact, Boeing plans to start flying people on the Atlas V in a few years, and they'll all be launching from the pad behind us. If you look back over there…"

She turned to point back at the pad, and that was when she saw the other group approaching them. The first member was Jake, also from PR, and who was supposed to be out on vacation. The second was a man in his mid-fifties with thinning hair and sporting the dark navy service dress of an Air Force officer. The third was her boss's boss, NASA Administrator Kosinski.

Her first thought was that the officer and administrator were also on a tour—a sizeable chunk of Atlas V launches were for the National Reconnaissance Office, after all—but as she started into her explanation of the launch pad's new crew access arm, she saw the administrator give her a small wave and gesture for her to follow.

"And now I'd like to introduce you to my friend Jake," Carol said, waving the man over. "He's going to be continuing your tour with a closer look at the Atlas before taking you over to the SpaceX site at Complex 40. Thanks for being awesome guests, and I hope you continue to enjoy your tour of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center!"

Once the tourists had left with the other guide, she approached the two remaining men. "Sorry about the delay Mr. Kosinski," she said, straightening her blouse. "It's the State Senator from Flager Country, and—"

"It's fine," Kosinski said with a laugh, then waved her towards the officer. "I wanted to introduce you to Colonel Richard Mullan, from the 94th Missile Wing."

The officer held out his hand and Carol shook it. "I heard a lot about you on the way here," he said. "That Venus probe—Akatsuki, I think it was? Really impressive work."

Carol laughed, then said, "I was one of a handful of NASA consultants, JAXA did most of the work."

"Actually, that's part of what we were hoping to talk with you about," Kosinski said, waving her in the direction of the launch pad. "Let's talk a walk."

Even in early March, the Florida cape was warm and humid. Now that they were out of the shadow of the Vertical Integration Building, Carol winced at the bright afternoon sun, then peered up at the cloud deck overhead. It didn't look like rain that day, but with Florida weather it always seemed impossible to tell.

"So, Dr. Dawson," Mullan began. "What have you heard in the news about the Gate?"

"Only what they put on CNN," Carol said. "I missed the live broadcast of those girls they brought to Japan a few weeks back, but I watched a shorter version of it later. Aside from that, there was some special that aired last week on NHK and was translated for 60 Minutes where they showed some of the stuff on the other side… I wasn't really paying attention because I was prepping for a conference on GOES-R. Why?"

The Colonel grinned and said, "What I'm about to tell you is strictly confidential, and falls under the same restrictions that we have for D.O.D. launches. Is that clear?"

"Yes, of course."

"Good. The short version is that Japan has asked us to help them run a space program in the Special Region on the far side of the Gate."

Carol stopped dead in her tracks and turned to fully face Mullan. "Huh?"

"Yeah," Kosinski said with a shrug. "That was my reaction."

"But they're in the middle ages over there," Carol pressed. "Swords and castles and things like that. Why would they need a space program?"

"Again, this is classified. Japan has two major problems that they're dealing with in the SR right now. The first is that there's a civil war occurring within the nation that attacked Japan last year. Japan knows that it's only a matter of time before they become involved, and they want to start gathering weather and topography data so that they can plan and coordinate attacks better."

"But if they wanted that, couldn't they just use planes or weather balloons?"

"Yes, but that leads us to the second problem. The JSDF has also encountered some really nasty stuff like that Fire Dragon they talked about at the Diet meeting. They also keep getting reconnaissance reports of other tribes and kingdoms beyond the one that they're currently interacting with. Japan would rather start doing long-distance recon and gather useful information now than be caught with their pants down later."

Carol didn't like it. She understood that everything she loved about rockets and spaceflight was a product of past defense needs, but the idea of old military demands forming the basis of a new world's first adventure to the stars was a sad one. Even then, the whole thing sounded like overkill for something that could probably be solved with high-power radio repeaters and long-duration aircraft.

Kosinski must have read her mind, for he added, "Outside of the military stuff, this is an excellent opportunity to gather data on a bona-fide habitable exoplanet. After all, the world beyond the Gate is just that, its own world with its own physics and orbital dynamics. What we discover there might speed up our own exoplanet searches here with the Kepler and Webb telescopes by giving us a better idea of what we should be looking for."

That was a fair point. "Even with all of this, why me?" Carol asked.

"Two reasons," Mullan said. "First, you have lots of experience with JAXA. Your records show that your Japanese is almost fluent, and you've spent enough time over there to get their culture. If we're going to coordinate with Japan on this, then we want someone who's done it before.

"The other reason is that we need someone to explain to the natives why they shouldn't be afraid of the giant tower of fire coming out of the JSDF base," he continued. "Basically, we need you to do public outreach to a group of people who have no clear idea what space is, to say nothing of how you put things up there."

Carol sighed and looked back in the direction of the other tour group where Jake was wildly waving up at the massive rocket behind him. The Senator's family seemed no more interested than they had at the start of the tour, and the wife was messing with her phone again. If she could hardly convince the people of her own world to pay attention to space, how would she convince anyone from another world?

But then she remembered the kid, the wide-eyed wonder at something new and spectacular. To most kids, space rockets were the pinnacle of "cool," the biggest, the fastest, and the most technologically advanced but, even more importantly, they were the modern symbols of adventure—the headlong rush into the unknown as humanity pushed the edge of what it could do.

If this world had really, truly never seen a proper rocket launch before, had never been opened up to the concept of space flight, then perhaps they would get it. Perhaps they might be able to catch some of the thrill and that, Carol supposed, would be worth it to witness.

"I'll do it," she said and then, with a smile, added, "When do we leave?"