by Sanford Meschkow
Image courtesy of NASA public domain
“Why are you looking so unhappy? I warned you not to choose that meal pack,” said Spencer Karlinsky.
Alistair Fox scowled at his corned beef and cabbage dinner. “It’s not just the food. You know what the real trouble with this mission is? The most interesting women on the ship won’t talk to me.” They were both afloat in Officer’s Kitchen A, just aft of the control room of the Ultima Thule and Karlinsky was scheduled to relieve Colonel Hayakawa in the crew lounge in less than ten minutes.
Karlinsky swallowed a mouthful of rubbery lasagna and smiled. “The women in the Symborski Drive Section, right? Don’t you mean that they avoid talking shop with you? Won’t discuss equipment failure modes? Well, it’s not just you, you know. Haven’t you figured out yet that they’re not just being snobbish? It’s security-related. Just pick a safe subject.” As ship’s blogmaster, one of Karlinsky’s tasks was to censor anything about the Symborski drive that might slip past the blog censorship software.
Karlinsky took another bite. The lasagna dinner pack was worse than the corned beef, but food was just fuel to him and he could digest almost anything. Besides, he had to hurry.
“But what could they tell me about the Symborski drive that I could do anything with, Spence? Do they expect me to build a relativity-denying FTL starship in my basement?”
“It makes sense to me. Fifty years ago there were angry guys in Middle Eastern caves who would have loved to know as much about small nuclear bomb design and maintenance as you do. And can you please eat faster?”
Fox poked at a chunk of discolored boiled potato; the fork wouldn’t penetrate. He jabbed his fork into his leathery corned beef in disgust. He was just more finicky than Karlinsky.
“I only ate the dessert; you can finish the rest. Spence, you’re the morale officer. Can’t you do something about the food situation?”
Some people always complain. But when a well-motivated type like Fox starts to gripe, Karlinsky took it as a sign that a dull mission had dragged on too long. He shook his head.
“Can’t. There aren’t enough extra meal packs to just throw away perfectly nutritious but badly-cooked meals we don’t like without digging into the emergency rations. The food service contract was awarded to a Bangalore-based company. Their Indian and Asian meal packs are great, but I’ve gotten twenty complaints about the corned beef and lasagna meal packs. Come on, I have to go.” Karlinsky fed both unfinished meal packs into the FINISH LATER slot of the meal dispenser. They would be returned to him for his next meal. He pushed off the wall and sailed towards the conveyor hatch.
“You know, Alistair, you’ve given me an idea. Maybe I could set up a food exchange system so crewmembers could trade their ration pack items easily. You know, a steak and fries dinner pack for three or four lasagna dinner packs or a chocolate bar for several plastic-tasting cups of custard.”
Fox thought a moment. “But how will the exchange system work if nobody wants the meal packs most people want to trade away?”
“I’ll force it to work. I’ll eat only the unwanted meals three times a day if I have to.”
“I’m dubious, Spence. That could be as bad as the limerick contest you sponsored.”
“Hey, those limericks weren’t that bad!”
Karlinsky and Fox rode the conveyor belt aft to the crew lounge and pushed off to the far wall. They planted themselves on stickyspots where Karlinsky had the best view of the video display. They weren’t alone. Six women from the Symborski Drive Section were clustered around the display and pointing at views of Target Star Cerise and the cratered surface of its second planet.
With a crew of 75 it was possible for blogmaster Karlinsky to know a lot about everybody. The brunette nearest the display, Second Lieutenant Cecelia Piretti, was the prettiest of the group, Karlinsky decided. Nice cheekbones. She had blogged about restaurants in Milan, rock climbing in the Dolomites with her brothers, and wreck diving off the Greek islands with a women’s diving club. Karlinsky was leery of rock climbing and he thought that only a lunatic would go poking around in sunken ships.
Colonel Judith Hayakawa, the command pilot/mission captain, was affixed to a stickyspot next to the conveyor hatch, her head and face hidden by a command-level VR helmet. The Ultima Thule had a control room, of course, but Hayakawa used it only for high-thrust and gravity-assist maneuvers. ASTRID, the ship’s AI, made it possible for a crewmember to stand watch using only a VR helmet.
Karlinsky checked the time. He still had a few minutes until he had to relieve Hayakawa.
“Well, here’s that new planet you were so eager to see,” said Fox, gesturing at the display. “Just as weird and worthless as all the others. Please wake me up when we get to a planet with good surfing and palm trees.”
Karlinsky grinned at Fox. He had used every scheme he could think of to win the unprestigious and thankless slot as morale officer just for the privilege of seeing new worlds.
“Working on a standup routine, shipmate? Good, I have plenty of room for you in the next talent show. Just remember that Canadian political gags aren’t funny in other nations.”
Fox looked surprised. “Squeezing yet another talent show onto the calendar? Aren’t you taking your morale officer slot too seriously?”
“Morale officer, ship’s blogmaster, Star Bond drive coordinator: I take them all seriously. I’m pushing for the highest task accomplishment rating of any junior officer in the Interstellar Reconnaissance Corps.”
First Lieutenant Fox, newly-promoted to junior pulse drive maintenance officer, just chuckled. “Well, good luck. But haven’t you noticed that all you second lieutenants get the dog jobs? It’s hard to get the Gagarin Medal for just taking out the garbage every day. It’s a day-and-night scramble just to get noticed.”
Since his promotion, Fox had become a self-anointed authority on the subject. To sidestep yet another lecture, Karlinsky pointed at the display.
“Look, a volcanic hot spot in the southern hemisphere. The Observation Section expected plate tectonics on a planet bigger than Mars. Maybe a biological oasis?”
“Don’t get too excited, Spence. we’re looking at the night side of a planet with an atmosphere that’s rich in methane and near a red dwarf that’s putting out most of its radiation in the infrared. And still Baffin Island in January is a paradise compared to it. Lots of hydrocarbon aerosols and craters, too.”
“Looks sort of like Ganymede, doesn’t it?”
“Who cares?” Fox made a sour face. “We got all the dog target stars this mission, Spence. The Terra Incognita gets to survey the Alpha Centauri system and Epsilon Indi. The Cathay gets to survey Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. The remaining two starships and us get mostly blipping red and brown dwarves and lots of deep-frozen planets and we didn’t draw either Sirius or Procyon. The landscape must be getting pretty dull for you SETI believers and tourist types. Not a furry octopus or a feathered spider in sight.”
Karlinsky shrugged. “Sooner or later, shipmate, sooner or later. It’s in the cards. These first five missions are just shakedown cruises, anyway. We just have to get out where we can survey more G-class star systems instead of all these puny M-class stars in our back yard. There’s a lot of good prospects all around us.”
“Karlinsky, where is Lieutenant Samsonov? ASTRID informs me you will be sitting in for him.” It was Colonel Hayakawa speaking from across the room and she didn’t sound happy. She had taken off her VR helmet and looked tired.
“Ma’am, Samsonov is in an extended-shift command training simulation. Normally, Captain Bronstein would sit in and take his shift, but she’s running several training sessions this shift and since I’m the morale officer and have the required cross training–”
Fox tactfully pushed off to a stickyspot closer to the display.
Colonel Hayakawa was quiet for a long moment. Karlinsky took that moment to push off from his stickyspot to sail across the lounge to a stickyspot closer to Hayakawa.
“Yes, I see your point. You have the basic cross training, but your hours under the helmet are lower than they should be and Captain Bronstein should have been nagging you about that. But what you really should be doing is logging more command simulation time like Samsonov is doing. You’ve been a second lieutenant for some time now and I seem to remember having an earlier conversation with you about getting ready for your command advancement exams. Isn’t that correct?” No, she was not happy at all, which was rare for her.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve been really busy getting the morale activities scheduled up and running. I planned on devoting time to command training on the inbound leg after the flyby of Struve 2398, uh, Target Star Crimson. Morale will be pretty high then.”
Colonel Hayakawa glared at him. “You must learn to prioritize, Karlinsky. That I’m taking the time to discuss this with you when I need to get some sleep should suggest something to you. I want to see a training schedule from you in 24 hours. Understood?” She handed Karlinsky the VR helmet. “I’ve instructed ASTRID to revert command to me if you run into anything complex. Have a good watch. One minute to hand-off.” Then she pushed off the wall and dove through the conveyor hatch and aftward. The VR helmet in Karlinsky’s hands began to chant “Hand-off in sixty seconds, hand-off in fifty-nine seconds–.”
Fox shot back across the room to an adjacent stickyspot. “Say, that didn’t sound good. What’s the problem?”
“Oh, she’s pushing me to make time for some CAE training instead of concentrating on task assignments. I know that old trick. Keep ‘em busy and sleepy and they won’t make trouble. You know during WWII they used to send guys out on the decks of battleships with hammers and chisels to chip off rust spots? Ever tour a WWII battleship? It would probably take a century for one to get really rusty. Sheer make-work! The idea was to keep everyone so busy and sleepy they had no time to cry into their pillows over their girl back home. I’ve checked the personnel regs. Do you know how much more task accomplishment is weighted in promotional evaluation raw scores over CAE training?”
Fox looked irritated. “You must be out of your mind. You might have been able to game the system and boost your class standing at the academy, but that won’t work here. When your commanding officer suggests something, you do it. Ignoring hints from her could get you a bad P-104 write-up. You’ll get posted to a support facility. Do you want to be the morale officer at Armstrong Base until you retire? We have to talk about this more after your shift,” said Fox, reaching for his handheld on his belt. “Screen, activate,” he said. “I‘ve some maintenance manuals I have to read through and revise; might as well do it here.” He threw a glance over his shoulder at the display. Views of the planet were alternating with prominences leaping off of the cool surface of Target Star Cerise.
“I can’t stop you, but I really have this all figured. Really,” Karlinsky said. “Say, since when did you start revising nuclear pulse propulsion maintenance manuals?”
“Oh, Farrell passed the job over to me when I got my promotion.”
“Uh-huh!” Karlinsky grinned as he slipped the VR helmet on. Just as he had suspected. Fox’s promotion had rewarded him with less time maintaining the elegant innards of the nuclear bomblets that propelled the ship (which he richly enjoyed) and more time spent on engineering paperwork. A typical negative promotion.
“Karlinsky relieving Colonel Hayakawa, ASTRID.”
“Welcome to your shift, Second Lieutenant Karlinsky,” said ASTRID in a women’s voice with a touch of a Scandinavian accent. The helmet display showed the planned flyby of Target Star Cerise. “All systems operating within acceptable parameters. Launching of sunskimmer probes 13 and 14 is scheduled for two hours, nineteen minutes, eleven-point-eight seconds. Closest approach to planet Cerise b is in one hour, thirty-seven minutes, seventeen-point-eight seconds. Level One diagnostic of the Orion nuclear pulse drive is scheduled for thirty minutes, twenty-point-eight seconds. Do you wish a review display of all critical systems?” The helmet displayed a virtual control board covered with icons.
And the icon for the atmosphere regeneration system swelled to fill the display.
Time crawled by. Karlinsky signed off on a few minor setting changes that ASTRID suggested. The Symborski FTL drive, of course, was in shutdown mode while the ship passed through a star system. He viewed a status summation of the nuclear pulse drive and looked over the shoulders of the Observation Section as they prepared to launch the sunskimmer probes. He also studied several distant views of hot and airless Cerise a, the innermost planet, and the dawn side of Cerise b as the ship crossed the planet’s orbit.
“Note the ice crystal cloud bands visible high in the planet’s atmosphere,” said CARL, the Observation Section’s AI, speaking in a resonant male voice with a Northeastern U.S. accent quite unlike ASTRID’s. On Cerise b, the faint star that was before the Ultima Thule would be climbing higher and higher in the eastern sky.
“This is a SETI encounter alert! Repeat, a SETI encounter alert!” said CARL suddenly. “I’m intercepting analog signals from a source coming into view on the planetary surface…Source is under the western end of an ice crystal cloud band… Source overlays with intense infrared source on surface… Source overlays with radar and optical location of cone-shaped structures suggesting volcanic features… Displaying anomalous structures…”
Karlinsky gasped at the enlarged radar image. Those terraces like hot springs and those structures that looked like cinder cones could be completely natural features, yes, but that tall and symmetrical structure spouting a white plume had to be…a cooling tower? And weren’t those tanks rising out of the ice? No, domes! He heard loud shouts coming from the women in the lounge and a nearby yelp of surprise that had to be Fox.
“Second Lieutenant Karlinsky, command of this ship is reverting to Colonel Hayakawa,” said ASTRID politely. “Please remove this helmet and stand by for further orders.”
“Yes. Certainly.” Said Karlinsky. His ears seemed to be ringing and his lips felt numb.
With the helmet off he could see the drive section crewmembers pointing at the display and arguing loudly with each other. Fox was pointing at the monitor and shouting about geothermal power plants. The display was flashing repeated views of the hot spot region in radar, IR, and visible wavelengths.
The monitor suddenly went black. “Signal analysis suggests this is an intercepted video transmission not aimed at us.” said CARL. “Decryption protocols are being applied.”
The display went silent. A black smudge against a gray background appeared. It shrunk and became more defined as the camera seemed to draw back. The shape became a seven-pointed star on the left cheek of a strange-looking young woman.
She wore a complicated head wrapping that looked West African and a bathrobe-like garment with big shoulder pads. Her eyebrows were extremely bushy and her jaw oddly prominent. Although the black-and-white image was somewhat blurry, one could see her teeth, her tongue, her eyes blinking, and her expression changing as she talked. She was obviously as human as any Australian Bushman or Balinese temple dancer, although she belonged to no racial group Karlinsky had ever seen.
“Oh, Lord, YES!” said Karlinsky. He was entranced. She had the most feathery eyelashes! Her left hand was holding a hexagonal placard with a big squiggle on it. She was pointing to it with her right. Her jaw moved up and down and her lips moved. Karlinsky knew he should be whooping and sailing around the room, but he was too stunned to even move from his stickyspot.
How could she look human? Had some alien race grabbed some cavemen for their zoo and were these their descendants? Or did all intelligent life forms have to look humanoid? No, don’t get sidetracked. Concentrate on dealing with this situation, thought Karlinsky.
The camera cut to a room full of young children (five years old? six?) wearing hooded leotards. Same bushy eyebrows, same big jaws. They jumped up and down and waved their arms. The situation was obvious. Me, teacher, me! Oh, I know! Call on ME!
The teacher again, smiling an encouraging smile, pointed at–
“ATTENTION, ALL SECTIONS. THIS IS COLONEL HAYAKAWA.” Her voice came booming out of the wall speakers, everyone’s handheld, and even the VR helmet Karlinsky was holding. She cleared her throat. There was a long silence.
“THERE ARE INDICATIONS OF INTELLIGENT LIFEFORMS ON CERISE B. SINCE WE DON’T KNOW THEIR MILITARY CAPABILITIES, WE’RE GOING TO A COMBINED LOSS-OF-PRESSURE AND DAMAGE CONTROL ALERT STATUS. SUIT UP! THERE WILL BE A MEETING IN THE LOUNGE IN 15 MINUTES OF ALL SECTION HEADS AND SENIOR OFFICERS. LIEUTENANT KARLINSKY, MEET ME THERE IMMEDIATELY. THAT IS ALL.”
Wall panels began flipping open, revealing emergency suits. Panels in the floor slid back and inflatable chairs and a conference table began inflating.
Karlinsky’s damage control station was at Suit Station 10 aiding other officers to suit up. He couldn’t leave the lounge, but he wasn’t going to float around doing nothing.
“Form a line by the suit racks. Start suiting each other up. Fox, you first!” Stuffing someone into a pressure suit in microgravity took practice, but Karlinsky was good at it.
The two men positioned themselves facing away from the women, who had more complicated sanitary connections to deal with than men did. Karlinsky had Stewart zipped up in minutes while the drive section crewmembers were still floundering around. They just weren’t as adept in microgravity as Fox and Karlinsky were.
“Hey, Spence, I’m heading for the bomblet deck. Remember my advice.”
The women had started helping each other by then, but Piretti was still lagging behind. She was sobbing bitterly as she tumbled around in mid-air. Karlinsky saw his chance and kicked over to the suit rack. He did a forward roll and matched her tumble.
“Here, let me help,” said Karlinsky, stretching out one of Piretti’s sleeves. Most of her suit’s zippers was still unzipped. “Why are you crying? Your secret star drive works and look at what we found using it. You should be happy.” They had met several times, of course, but hadn’t really spoken. He grabbed a leg (he had the perfect excuse) and zipped a suit leg around it.
“I am not crying for myself. I am crying for my favorite uncle,” she said with a slight Italian accent. “He is a professor of human prehistory. He may have to send home all his students, burn all his books, and start over!”
“Don’t jump to conclusions. They might only look human,” he said tactfully. “Now, zip up the other leg, Cecelia, please? And I enjoy your blog. Those restaurants in Milan you wrote about sounded exceptional.”
She looked at him closely as if seeing him for the first time. “Ah, I’ve read your blog also. You hike and climb peaks in the Adirondacks and camp where the wolves come to beg scraps at your campfire. You must be a madman.”
“No, they’re harmless as long as you use repellent spray and don’t feed them.” He decided now was not the time to confess about the night he had fed a pack a whole box of marshmallows. “Now, zip up and I’ll grab your feet and get us to a stickyspot.”
They ended up on a stickyspot that would have been on the ceiling had the ship been under Orion drive. Cecilia’s friends applauded.
“Thank you. You are very good in microgravity,” she said with an inviting smile. “You would make a good wreck diver, I think. Ever want to try it?”
“We’ll have to get together so you can tell me all about it,” said Karlinsky as cheerfully as he could. Wreck diving? What was he allowing himself to be talked into?
Karlinsky expected Colonel Hayakawa to appear immediately, but he had time to finish suiting up himself after everyone else left the lounge. After his suit pressure check, he left his helmet faceplate open. Pressure sensors would close and seal the helmet at the tiniest pressure drop and he wanted to stretch his air supply.
He tucked the VR helmet under his arm and watched new footage of the teacher displaying another placard covered with alien spaghetti-like patterns. An alphabet more intricate than Arabic? A gawky boy with a big nose answered a question with much mouth flapping and received a warm smile and more mouth flapping in return. What could she be saying? That’s right, Oogo, this word ends with a fire radical, so the “utt” is silent. But can anyone think of a word that begins with a fire radical? Oogo? Anyone? Who haven’t we heard from yet?
Maybe Cecelia’s uncle's career was threatened. Karlinsky felt really uncomfortable, as if he had his shoes on the wrong feet. He had always dreamed of meeting intelligent aliens someday, but instead he had met…what? When the British had surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown, the British band had played a popular tune titled “The World Turned Upside Down.” Would that song become the new anthem of the Interstellar Reconnaissance Corps? Were a lot of college texts heading for the flames?
“I’m on my way, Karlinsky,” said Colonel Hayakawa though Karlinsky’s helmet headphones. “If you’re watching the transmissions right now, this isn’t all the footage we have. Major Chandhari says the children are doing something like square dancing. He also confirms the signals are definitely coming from outside the ship, so this isn’t a hoax, in case you were wondering,” she said as she floated into the lounge. She pointed to the conference table. “Might as well take a seat, Karlinsky.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He pulled himself down to a seat and prepared for the worst. He must have completely bungled his watch for a dressing down of this magnitude.
Colonel Hayakawa leaned across the table, her eyes drilling into him. “First of all, this discussion has to be restricted until further notice for reasons of morale. What we’ve seen today changes our mission profile. When we do an orbital plane change and gravity-assist maneuver during our close approach to this target star, we won’t be aiming towards Target Star Crimson. Instead, we will decelerate, establish an orbit around this target star that will include a flyby of Cerise b, get more pictures and intercept more transmissions, and then head straight back to Earth. Can you tell me why?”
Karlinsky didn’t dare blink. His stomach churned. “Uh, ma’am, because a SETI Incident takes priority over an astronomical survey of nearby M-class stars?”
“Correct. Our other scheduled flyby is cancelled. I can’t account for what we’ve seen, but it’s better to have lots of data and no theories than lots of theories and no blippin’ data. So we’re going to get more data–or else.”
“Ma’am, we’re close to our last planned gravity-assist maneuver and we’re almost out of bomblets. How can we change the mission profile so much?’
“By returning home at a much reduced velocity compared with the velocity we reached leaving our home system. We can reduce our velocity a lot because the mass of this target star is so much less than our own sun. And we can also use that,” she said, pointing to his VR helmet.
“Using the helmets means we don’t need a control room with high-thrust couches once we complete our high-thrust maneuvers. And all the antennas, scopes, and instrumentation on the hull optimized for stellar observation can be gotten rid of, too. All we need is observational hardware for the planetary flyby and communications hardware to reach our rescuers in the solar system, as we will probably end up in some kind of a near-earth orbit. So we disassemble everything else and it goes out the air lock and off the ship.”
Karlinsky blinked. Could Hayakawa have pulled that plan out of her hat in the past few minutes? No! There must be a file full of contingency plans on her handheld for a whole range of unlikely situations such as this.
Then Karlinsky almost jumped out of his seat. “Colonel, what about the sunskimmer probes? They’re about to be launched!”
“Good catch, Karlinsky. All launches are on hold, but Major Chandhari already has some of his section tearing into the guts of the probes and seeing if they can be used during the planetary flyby or for distress beacons when we get close to home. Otherwise, they go overboard too. But let’s talk about your immediate concerns.”
She leaned closer. “With the Symborski drive it usually takes us about three days and sixteen hours to cover a light year. But if we are forced to leave this star system at a much slower velocity than we planned, a trip home from here that should take about five weeks could take much longer, especially adding in the time it may take to rescue us from a solar orbit not near the earth. We may end up all crowded into this room in our pressure suits, eating emergency rations and trying not to freeze.” She looked grim.
“Telling…ghost stories in the dark?” asked Karlinsky, not stopping to think.
“Exactly, Karlinsky! You might be organizing ghost story contests to keep us all sane until we get rescued. Any other morale-building ideas? You might need a lot of them.”
“Uh, uh, not right this second, Colonel.” That food exchange system? Suggest it later? A contest to name the alien teacher and all her students? Too crazy?
“Well, morale officer, you have 24 hours to come up with 23 additional activity ideas for evaluation. Just make them better than your limerick contest.” She turned to the display. Her expression softened. “And another thing. She really seems to love those children, doesn’t she? She has to live inside one of those domes we saw. She certainly isn’t breathing methane and mixed hydrocarbons at temperatures cold enough to freeze a penguin solid. So, what do you think of her?”
Karlinsky was too wrung out to be anything but truthful. “Well, ma’am, at first glance she looked a bit…grotesque. But now, you know, she’s really not that bad looking. But I wonder. What does that seven-pointed star mean?”
“It might mean she’s a member in good standing of the teacher’s union. Or it could mean that she’s of marrying age and wishes to meet a tall, dark stranger. And you could qualify, Karlinsky. Maybe one of her girlfriends or cousins is even prettier than she is. You can bet that the next ship we send to this system will have landing craft, so you may meet them all. Which may result in a personal problem if she’s as human as she looks. It’s the same problem my husband had when I first introduced him to my father. My father asked, ‘A second lieutenant, young man? How much money does a second lieutenant make and can you support my daughter on that?’ What could you say to him?”
“Oh. Oh! I’ve never thought of that.” Yes, what exactly could the salaries of two second lieutenants buy in, say, Milan?
“Well, I’m ordering you to think about it. When I got married we were both second lieutenants and we damn near ended up eating soy protein casserole seven days a week. So, think of your future. Now, get out of here and get to work. I need this table for a senior staff meeting. And don’t forget that training schedule!”
Suit Station 10 was up forward in officer country just down the corridor from Karlinsky’s closet-sized office. As the conveyor pulled him along, other officers and staff in emergency suits passed him heading aft to attend the meeting that would decide how to gut the ship. He realized his hot idea of a food exchange system was now ridiculous. Crewmembers anticipating eating emergency rations would eat any edible meal pack without complaint. Nor would they be inclined to write limericks or standup routines for a talent show while tearing excess weighty hardware out of the ship. The world turned upside down again; a crew trained to repair and preserve valuable hardware would have to turn their minds to deciding how much of it was now superfluous.
“Hey, wait a minute,” he said aloud. “Record the weight of everything that gets tossed overboard and record the crewmember who suggested it. The crewmember with the highest total wins…what? All the remaining chocolate bars? A Gargarin medal?” He was out of ideas and needed suggestions to complete his idea. But all the people whose suggestions counted were in a meeting he couldn’t attend because he wasn’t senior staff. Yet.
But not for long. Not for long! He would just have to figure out how to work his way through this situation and pound out some good ideas one by one.
He pulled out his handheld. “Screen, activate. Display contest software library inventory!”
After this, climbing in the Dolomites or wreck diving was going to seem easy.