Error: I'm afraid this is the first I've heard of a "comments" flavoured Blosxom. Try dropping the "/+comments" bit from the end of the URL.

Sat, 29 Aug 2009

Contact First

"Houston, we have a problem."

Bob Houston sighed, shook his head, and shot a look of disdain at Ken.

"Oh jeez, Bob," Ken quickly added, "I'm sorry. You hate that don't you. But I the thing is, umm, Bob, we really do have a problem."

"Did you know that I'm the grandson, to the twelfth power, of the famous Sam Houston, 19th century American statesman, politician, and soldier."

"Yes, Bob, I did know that," said Ken. Now it was his turn to sigh.

"You hate me talking about Sam Houston, don't you?"

"It's not really a big deal."

"You don't like it though, right?" insisted Bob.

"Yes, it does get tiresome," admitted Ken.

"OK, then. Now what's this problem we have?"

Ken pointed toward the main view screen where he had arranged the latest sensor data from the NC earth tangier-zeta-4.

"This is an PC earth. And do you see the scientific crap, like the gas spectral analysis. The computer says this means TZ4 is inhabited, probably with an pre-fusion industrialized civilization. Definite Pre Contact earth."

"Did you say, inhabited? What, with, like, people?"

"No, Bob, not people. Or at least I don't think it's likely they are exactly people," said Ken

"Is it sunny there?" asked Bob, gesturing toward the screen. "I like sunny, warm places -- places like Texas. I especially like them for changing a bum donut. If we go down there, maybe we should wear some of those big brimmed plantation hats like Sam Houston was fond of. I like wearing them in sunny warm places. I believe I may have one in your size."

"Listen, Bob, I'm sorry, OK? I wasn't thinking. But pre-contacted inhabited earths are a problem. You know what they advise us: stay clear."

"Yes," said Bob, "I know. But you know that we have to set down to fix the drive band. Can't do it in space. Can't go hyperlight. We're stuck here. PC rules or no PC rules, TZ4 is the only option. Or would you like to spend the rest of your life here in a distant orbit from that sun, with Bob Houston telling you stories about his dodeca-great grandpa."

Ken smirked. "You have a point," he said. Then he turned to the computer and gestured till a course plan was displayed on the screen.

"We can refine this when we get closer," said Ken, "but a polar orbit probably gives us a shot at avoiding the inhabitants."

"You're saying we should land on one of the poles?"


"Aren't poles usually cold?"

"Umm, sure, the WeatherMan says the winter pole is currently at about -80C."

"Would CO2 freeze at that temperature?" asked Bob.

"Well, technically it would, I think, but even though the CO2 concentration is high, it's not that high. Solid CO2 would sublime because of the low partial pressure."

"Was that a 'no'?"

"It's a no. Sorry, I was a chemistry major in college. CO2 wouldn't freeze."

"OK, that's good. Then the aft gas envelope wouldn't seize up. But what about the busted band on the aft sublimator feed coupling? I betcha' that donut would be solid as a rock at -80C. Be a bitch to get off of there. Impossible I'd say. Almost as impossible as disassembling it in space: sucked tight and frozen.. Which is exactly why we need to land on that earth in the first place!" Bob added, raising his voice.

"Take it easy, Bob. I understand our predicament. Yes, it needs to be warm. I hadn't thought about that. But getting spotted would still be a really bad idea. Remember PC training? You were in my class. Remember the power point slide? The quote from some old movie: 'People get really freaked out when a flying saucer lands on their planet. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.' There was a cartoon of a little green man getting plugged by a marine. If we landed and something went wrong, we could lose our jobs, or worse."

"So there arepeople on this earth?" asked Bob.

"No, almost certainly not. Something very much like people, but not people exactly, I don't think," replied Ken.

"Then what are we waiting for? I can accept that silly PC crap for the day to day stuff, but this is an emergency. The company wants all of our packages delivered. Let's land someplace warm and sunny. That should make the repair job a snap. If the locals are anything even remotely like people -- if they are anything like you and me, at least -- they'll argue amongst themselves for a few hours about what to do about us. That should be plenty long enough for us to fix the sublimator band and hyper our alien invader butts off their bloody PC earth."

The two human men were having this conversation on the cargo deck of a Grumman P-6000 interstellar delivery truck owned by Universal Parcel Service. Bob Houston, the great, great, ..., great grandson of Sam Houston was the driver; Ken Choy was IIIb quadrant assistant supply chain manager, riding along with Bob, making his rounds to press the flesh and hand out little trinket gifts at the larger customers along Bob's route. Otherwise, Ken served as driver helper to Bob, which was important, as it happened to be the holiday rush. The men had been friends a long time.

They had completed most of this 4-day tour, hitting over 300 different customers throughout the galaxy quadrant, a prodigious number. Usually Bob didn't have 75 stops to make in a given tour and 300 was near a record. Given the heavy sub-space volume and long jam-ups at the major jump points, it was a credit to Bob's detailed knowledge of the quadrant that he could jump in and out of so many busy systems in that short a time. Ken was constantly amazed by "dirt-road" or "short cut" coordinates that Bob could pull from his memory -- like coordinates for the trailing volume behind some orbiting platform in a sector, only where PVS (Post Volume Sweep) jump targets were legal, of course.

Unfortunately, these "dirt roads" had taken a toll on the P-6000 and at their last stop, the tidal stress from a nearby uncompensated mass seemed to have mucked up the sublimator ring. They had arrived two hundred meters from a gas-giant mining platform, directly in the wake of a methane container that had exited a minute before. There had been another occasion, a few years back, when Bob had misjudged the timing and arrived inside a methane tank itself -- a somewhat smelly and embarrassing experience. This time he was in the clear and everything appeared to have been fine. Unfortunately, something must have gone wrong. Perhaps a feed gantry near the container messed with the drive. Hard to say. The drives on this model Grumman were finicky.

Upon arrival at the platform, they were greeted by smiles and whoops of enthusiasm from the miners when they dropped off the six "plain brown packages" from a high quality android company. Bob was still grinning at the thought of the miner's adult Christmas present when they jumped to subspace. He entered the exit number for the next stop. What he saw on the console turned his grin into a frown of impatience.

"What do you mean 'Exceeds maximum distance, pick a closer exit'?" demanded Bob, as he gawked at the console in frustration. "That exit's not even 500 light years? Stupid software."

"What's wrong?" asked Ken.

"The silly WinJump program says we're out of gas. TA9 is too far away," said Bob.

"But we just filled up at the mining platform. Try rebooting," said Ken.

As it turned out, the failed donut had imbalanced the drive, cutting the efficiency dramatically. Usually, limited predicted range was a result of fuel being low, which it plainly wasn't in this case. But it didn't take them long to figure out the actual problem.

"What's that weird noise?" asked Ken. There was a faint thumping from below deck.

"Weird noise?" Bob paused, pricking up his ears. "Shit! I hear it now. Bloody hell. Must be going deaf. That's a bad donut, no question. Useless software! Why didn't it say 'check engine' instead of that cryptic 'exceeds maximum distance' nonsense?"

"We have spares, right?"

"Oh sure," replied Bob, "lots of spares. Shouldn't take too long to fix. Still it's bad luck; our run was almost over. I hope we can get this fixed quick so we can still be home by Friday night." Bob paused a moment and his frown deepened. "Trouble is, I can't think of an earth near here. Do me a favor, Ken. Pull up the maps and find us a nice place to land that's under us. I'll run the diags to confirm the ring is busted."

Fixing a sublimator "donut" was a routine repair for a UPS driver. Un-clamp the old one; slide in the new one; set the clamps again and off you go. All UPS trucks carried several spares. Unfortunately, the rings were nearly impossible to install in space. When exposed to vacuum, or when it was too hot or too cold, the old ring surface would suck tight to the sublimator flange. In those conditions there was no way to get it detached without special tools. Recently somebody had begun to sell "EZ change" donuts, but the trucks had not yet been fitted with them. Nor was it likely they would be till the price came down. UPS trucks were well equipped to land on earths, of course. All delivery drops and terminals were on or near earths. Thus, the occasional need for a driver to pull over to fix a busted donut was not normally a significant restriction.

As luck would have it, Bob had taken a "short cut" through a sparsely populated region in the sector. It was the middle of nowhere, so to speak. Ken couldn't find anything better than TZ4 within range of their imbalanced drive.

"We could call in for a tow," said Ken.

"No, Ken Choy, we can't call in for a tow," replied Bob with a smirk. "You saw the traffic. How long do you think it would take to get a tow truck here? A few hours? We might even be stuck here overnight, 500 light years from anything. All our red packages would be a day late. The company wouldn't like that. More important, I have tickets for Friday night. Cats. Ever seen it? Jeanie has always liked that play and I hear the new cast is really good. She'd kill me if we missed it."

Ken nodded. He had his own plans for the weekend. A cute receptionist at an import export firm he had visited two days ago on the route had agreed to meet him for a beer. OK, he thought. Most likely they wouldn't be spotted. Even if they were spotted, the critters down there wouldn't know what to make of a brown disk hovering over the ground. Pre-fusion industrialized locals. Bob was right, Ken concluded. If the locals down there were anything like pre-fusion human people, they'd argue about what the brown disk could be, divided over whether it was an act of nature or something caused by the last king or president.

Seeing the agreement in Ken's eyes, Bob keyed in the exit for TZ4. This time the console accepted the nearby turn with no complaint.

Since this was a PC system, the exit dropped them at a considerable distance from the earth. It was marked on the map as a scenic overlook and as the view stabilized, it was indeed quite beautiful: the glow from the yellow sun nearby contrast to a few bluish dust clouds and there was a tan and magenta gas giant with two gray rings in the foreground. The effect was striking.

"Nice place," said Bob, glancing briefly at the pretty scene outside the window before he began poking commands into the nav system with the tip of his finger. When he finished programming, he turned to Ken. "We'll pop in on the dawn side of earth, right here where the weather looks nice. Oh, let's see, maybe about twenty klicks off the ground," said Bob, gesturing vaguely at the map. That should be above any pre-fusion air traffic the locals have up, right?"

"How the heck should I know what traffic these guys have up? That's the thing, Bob, we're not trained for this. It's certainly not in our job description to go messing around on PC earths," said Ken.

"Well, we'll see their traffic on our sensors as we come in," said Bob. "Hey, look at this narrowing strip of land right here between the oceans," Bob gestured more specifically at the map, grinning for the first time since they left the mining platform. "I think that looks a lot like Texas and Mexico. Definitely the place to set down. Maybe I'll claim the spot we land in the name of grandpa Houston"

Their course dove toward TZ4 in an efficient hyperbolic arc. PC rules prohibited hyperlight travel anywhere near PC earths and at first Bob complied with the letter of the law, creeping in at 0.99C. But when he realized it would take over an hour to reach TZ4 at that slow speed, he lost patience. When Ken was occupied with some paperwork, Bob punched in a microjump to put them just 5 light minutes from the world. The earth, which had been a near-invisible speck, suddenly became a bright star.

As if to make up for his misdemeanor, Bob backed it down to 0.8C for the last few minutes it took to reach the atmosphere. Then his hurry got the better of him again, and he punched in a hypo-atmospheric nano-jump to jake-brake them to a spot 20 kilometers over "Texas".

"Here we are," said Bob.

"Jeez, Bob, they're gonna hear that braking pop, don't you think?" said Ken.

Bob looked at the sensor display, his brow wrinkled in concern. "I wouldn't worry about the pop, it appears we're being cooked -- where is that crap coming from?" The RF warning sensor indicator was pulsing.

"I think it's called raydar. The locals can see us with it. I saw a show about it on the history channel. They used it in old-time wars to find their enemy. Perl Harbor, I think. It's a kind of a raydio echo thing like fish -- or was it bats -- they use it to see like we use hyper eyes," said Ken.

"Raydio to see? I thought raydio was bad? People used to cook food with it till they learned that even small raydio exposure from cookers caused autism would kill everything in a century or two. Am I remembering this correctly?" Bob pulled out one of the brown binders next to the console. It was labeled "Safety Procedures".

"Shit, Bob, being cooked by raydio is bad. I don't like it. Even worse, we shouldn't be seen. We need to get out of here, right now."

"It says here," Bob said as he studied a page in the binder, "OK, we're good -- blinking yellow on the RF is safe for 24 hours," he continued, looking up at Ken. "Air breathable, nice temperatures. Let's go down and get 'er done."

"Are you sure? I have a bad feeling about this," said Ken.

Yes, the creatures on TB4 were very much like people. In fact, their name for themselves could be best translated as "people". This was the case in virtually all truly human cultures. To avoid confusion, we'll call them the TB4ites. And indeed, TB4ite engineers had invented raydar so as to help see each other at long distances. As with pre-hyper humans, this tele-vision capability was used primarily for aiming or dodging missiles launched during their perpetual war fighting, with weather predictions and air traffic control as a distant secondary use.

Just a few seconds after the brown Grumman disk had popped into its hovering station, a military surveillance raydar operating from near a big city in what Bob had named "Texas" picked up the prominent echo return from their brown disk. Since the new "blip" wasn't moving, and it was at such a ridiculously high altitude, the intentions of the target didn't initially concern the sentient TB4ite watcher of this raydar who assumed it was some sort of clutter anomaly. But the watcher's dismissive attitude soon changed as the P-6000 began to streak diagonally downward at 1000 KPH. Bob had seen an open area toward the western coast of "Texas" and he was directing the craft to land there, carefully staying subsonic so as to not attract attention -- as if his near instantaneous acceleration to Mach 0.85 was "low key".

The watcher of the raydar tagged the suddenly moving target as a UFO and reported the contact to his superior. Within a minute, the superior had alerted the air defense net, which confirmed the track on other raydars, classified the target as some kind of cruise missile, and requested authorization to launch some missiles in defense. The request was denied pending determination of the intended target. Some TB4ite analyst quickly did the math (which was exactly like human math) and discovered that the UFO was streaking at about 1000 KPH toward a large empty range area. It struck the analyst as conveniently coincidental that this particular open country was owned by by the military and used as a missile test range. Thus, he (The TB4ites didn't have male and female sexes, but, oddly, their language grammar had gender just like human grammar. The noun for for raydar analyst was male in TB4ese.) concluded that this UFO might be a test launch and they had missed a memo. He recommended that air defense should track it to impact and then bitch about not being copied on test schedules at the weekly status briefing. Of course, they should also scramble a few jets to take close up pictures of the impact site and send somebody to gather up and impound the debris. Whoever launched the thing without telling anybody would have to kiss some TB4ite butt to get the pieces back. (The TB4ites didn't actually have butts -- not exactly like Bob and Ken. We've translated a slightly different TB4ite body part that their culture considered kissing to be a gesture of subsurvience.)

"Good, there's air," said Bob as he opened the hatch.