On 4th of January, 2015, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) sent its monthly update to Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Among the hundreds of IR shots that the spacecraft had taken, few were ruined by a bright streak. While initially dismissed as a glitch, its presence in multiple shots intrigued the Deputy Principal Investigator James Bauer, who placed a call to Washington. The head of the Science Division, John Grunsfeld, was just about to ride his beloved bicycle when his phone vibrated.
"Hey John, James here. I think NEOWISE might have caught something interesting but we need to retask it for confirmation and I wanted to run that by you first", Bauer explained. Two and half thousand miles away, Grunsfeld sighed as he dumped his bike and headed back to his office.
"Let me double check things but it should be fine. What do you think you got?" He asked while walking to the elevators. Bauer waited a moment, pondering whether he should share his suspicion or not. In the end, he decided to go for it:
"A new comet, never before seen one, that is coming in hot as hell", he said.
"Hot damn, that's exactly the kind of stuff that the director can take to the Hill to justify our budget. I'll give you my permission right now and will clear it with the rest of the Division right away", Grunsfeld responded. He hadn't felt this excited since 2012, when he rode to Low Earth Orbit aboard Space Shuttle Columbia.
"Gotcha boss, we'll get to work", Bauer acknowledged and terminated the call. He had a team to whip to action.
Two weeks later, NASA held a press conference to announce the tentative discovery of a new comet, one moving at a quadruple velocity compared to Hayley's Comet and with a trajectory bringing it relatively close to Earth. In scant hours, every telescope on Earth was aimed at the fresh visitor to the inner system.
Susan Mullally was going through her usual work - analyzing Kepler data to find binary systems - when her colleague and boss, Jeffrey Smith, called.
"Get your ass down here right now", he said, out-of-breath, before cutting the line. Intrigued, Susan rushed to the main conference room of the SETI Institute in California. By the time she got there, a handful of other night owls had been roused by Smith, who held a manic grin on his pudgy face.
"Argentina just sent this in, listen", he said and pressed a button with a flourish. The speakers came alive with the familiar sound of interstellar background noise that their radio telescopes constantly listened to - yet there was a beep that she didn't recognize. And there it was again. And again. And again. Despite not being a 'radio guy', she did understand the significance.
"Has this been confirmed?" She asked.
"No, Argentina has trouble tracking the source for some reason, they claim it is moving. They are adjusting but now that you've heard it too, ensuring that I didn't just go crazy five minutes ago, I'm going to call every radio telescope on the planet and get them in on the search". Smith was babbling but nobody cared - this could very well be the signal that the Institute had worked for.
General John Hyten, Commander USAF Space Command, stared at his desk. For variety, he briefly glanced out of his window but for once the beautiful view of Colorado did not soothe his mind. He had just gotten a call from NORAD that he never expected to receive.
"If this is some kind of a prank, it is not very funny. Are you absolutely certain?"
"Yes sir, we have double, triple and quadruple checked. The facts are as solid as humanely possible", the voice on the other end answered.
"And the network boys are certain that it's not some hotshot hacker playing with us?"
"Yes sir, we thought the same thing at first but it is genuine", the voice responded.
"Very well. Thank you, I will take it from here", Hyten said and ended the call. He always thought that he would never need to call the President - if WW3 started with a nuclear strike, others would take care of that end. But this! Sighing, he picked up the phone and dialled the White House, dreading the conversation to come.
"This is General Hyten, Space Command. I am calling to inform the President that we have confirmation of a message from a non-human intelligence, outside the Earth. Yes, I'll hold"
Comet 2015/P/Neowise-Bauer turned out to be something else altogether. A massive probe, continuously transmitting an electronic signal. Unfortunately humanity had no method of rendezvousing with it. Thousands of images of it were taken, on every part of the EM-spectrum available, as the artificial "comet" sailed through the Solar System. The scientific community worked as one to decipher the message and, once certain mathematical regularities were discovered, the rest was easy enough, with plentiful access to super computers and the best brains on the planet. Unlike our Voyager probes, its message was not of peace and harmony. It was a warning of impending doom - but also of possible salvation.
The message clearly stated that some sort of collective intelligence, possibly of extragalactic origin, that is methodically wiping out life in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Unknown number of species had already been wiped out by them and the creators of the probe were currently fighting them - and losing. The news sent most of humanity reeling. Here was definite proof of life outside planet Earth but the worst fears of the pessimists seemed to be coming true - space was truly hostile.
Yet the probe included a glimmer of hope: knowledge of exotic materials, quickly dubbed the Trans-Newtonian minerals for their near-magical properties, that seemed to offer possibilities flying directly in opposition to the Laws of Physics as currently understood. These materials could be find on planets, moons, asteroids and comets, and when subjected to an carefully modulated electric current, could be harvested from the 'regular' minerals. With them and the information that the probe transmitted, space exploration would not only be possible but affordable and vastly more efficient than before. Even faster than light travel between the stars could be possible!
Yet humans are nothing if not set in their ways. Large portion of the population soon moved on, concerned more with their daily survival than with a possible existential crisis, and some nations preferred to go at it alone - but not all. By the end of 2015, the leading politicians of NATO, EU and the former SEATO members had gathered to announce the formation of a new supra-national organization to spearhead humanity's efforts to safeguard the planet and to spread mankind to the stars. Since both Russia and China refused to join, and none of the African, South-American or Middle-Eastern countries were interested, and out of Asia, only Japan, South-Korea, and Singapore joined, this new organization was named the Pan Oceanic Treaty Organization or PATO for short. Despite protests from both Russia and China that this new organization was a militaristic one directly aimed at them, the international reaction was subdued and, for once, the diplomatic wrangling was completed surprisingly quickly. Technocrats, taking advantage of frightened politicians and the public support, managed to iron out the startup issues in short order by the end of 2015.
In short, while the countries making up PATO retained full control of their domestic, economical and foreign policies (inside the framework of their respective other groupings and alliances, like NATO or the European Union), they all pledged to work together and to devote significant portion of their industrial, economical, scientific and military capability to further the aims of PATO. Similar to how NATO was governed, each member state appointed a delegate to the PATO council, the executive chair rotating between members (by quirk of the alphabet, Albania was the first) and all decisions having to be accepted unanimously. However, the technocrats responsible for drafting the actual treaty were clever enough to shift most responsibility below the actual council, which would only be required to decide on the most grave matters. Day-to-day business would be administered by a join executive administration that combined both civilian and military leadership.
Joe Hanson, a veteran American diplomat, was tapped to become the first PATO Administrator. Experienced at overseeing massive projects in both the US Federal government and in the UN, he had solid contacts and knowledge of both industrial and economic sectors and this experience propelled him past the Canadian-born Isaac Knowles and British-born Gemma Mitchell, who were appointed as his vice administrators and potential successors.
Admiral John Richardson, the current Chief of Naval Operations for US Navy, snatched the appointment to be the top military commander of PATO. Despite heavy competition from the air forces of several PATO countries, the navy side managed to convince the politicians and the civil servants that they had the proper experience, know-how and mind set to wage war in deep space. The crucial difference was that, despite the flyboys having monopoly for aerospace operations, the miracle of TN-assets implied that future space operations would far more likely resemble naval operations of 17th to 20th centuries - not the easily micro-managed air strikes lasting few hours of the 21st century. Despite having no existing assets under him, Richardson wisely saw the writing on the wall and left his beloved wet Navy behind.
The mission of PATO was simple - to eXplore space, to eXpand humanity's hold of the galaxy, to eXploit the resources thus found and to eXterminate any threats to the human race and planet Earth.
Despite their refusal to join PATO, neither the Russian Federation nor the People's Republic of China were going to turn a blind eye to what was going to happen. Quietly, both countries took steps to start their own TN-programs. Russia was keen to regain her lost glory, while China was merely being pragmatic. They had no lofty ideals to safeguard.
Rest of the planet would thereafter be know as the neutral UN, playing no significant part.
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