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Shepherd Moon, Chapter 1: A Happy Accident

 

He stepped out of the taxi on the roof of a public landing pad - a seemingly average man.

He leaned over the window of the driver, mentally converting Solars to dollars.

"You got change for a fifty?" the brown-haired man said, knowing his credit ID wouldn't work here.

The cabby smiled. "That old trick won't work with me, buster," he said in a decidedly Russian accent (Leningrad, perhaps, the man thought). He keyed the lock on his cashbox. "I got your change."

Now how did a Russian such as this get to be in New York and become, of all things, a cabby, Bill thought, and smiled.

The man handed over a fifty-dollar bill, reminding himself that he was in the States now. The cabby handed him his change, a big wad of bills and coins, and smiled at him mischievously.

"Have a good day," said the driver.

"Thank you, and a good day to you, too." He stepped back as the turbines of the taxi whined and pushed it upward into the blue sky. “It's strange,” he thought, “how time can change men and cure old wounds. We almost wiped out the race and now we're able to exchange pleasantries with each other - two people from opposite sides of the fence. A few generations ago, we wouldn't be caught dead in the same car. Now, look at us. Times sure are changing.”

He looked at the wafer-thin chronometer-pad on his wrist and discovered that he was late. "Damn," he muttered, as he hurried down an escalator to ground level.

There, he checked out a personal electric cart and hummed off to the old U.N. buildings, still the same after more than 300 years. Of course, such structures wouldn't have survived that long even if they escaped the bombings of the war. They had been almost totally rebuilt, but pains were taken to maintain the buildings' old facade. He liked it. He was always a sucker for tradition.

He parked the cart in one of the ground-level stalls, where it was whisked away by machinery to some other person needing it. He looked up at the U.N. Secretariat building, dwarfed by the other more modern hundred-level buildings surrounding it, and watched the sun reflect off the glass. It wasn't really glass anymore but Crystalline metal, a metal alloy that, when properly treated, had the refractive index of glass, but was metal and attracted magnets.

He stepped through the Crystalline doors of the building adjacent to it, the U.N. General Assembly building - a structure that looked like a flattened soapbox, also another three-hundred-year old relic, but clearly echoing the graceful lines of its companion.

He was immediately grabbed by the collar and pulled through the throng of reporters and media people anxious to interview him.

"Dammit, Bill, where've you been? You're already late," said the pretty, smartly-dressed woman.

Bill smiled in amusement at the obviously harried Sahsha, who was, as a rule, always calm and levelheaded.

"Nowhere, really," he replied. "Our ship developed problems out on the moon and the Captain had to wait until the ground crews could fix them." He gently pulled her hand off his shirt. "I would appreciate it if you would let go of my collar," he said as he hurried to keep up with her to the old-style elevator.

The tall man had to lean down, as Sahsha was quite short. Petite, he corrected himself. The lady doesn't like to be called short.

"Now," she sighed as they got in the elevator and pushed the CLOSE button, "I cleared you with Security when I saw you park and I also got your ID and badge." She handed him a clear visitor's ID, which he pinned on his jacket pocket.

"Efficient," he said, making a show of being impressed.

"No sarcasm," she said. "I've got you scheduled after the Venusian representative and he should be finishing right about now." She looked at her wrist. "Have you got everything?"

"Yes. You'll never know how much we're paying for that transmitter."

"And Marc?"

"Yeah, he's ready."

The doors opened out to the General Assembly Hall, the largest room in the U.N.

"Well," he said, looking at his watch. “Just in time for Earthship Two’s transmission. I guess this is it." He turned and smiled at Sahsha. Impulsively, Sahsha stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the nose.

"Good luck, Bill," she said and hurried down to the observation room.

He smiled bemusedly and watched her hurry down the aisle. Shaking his head, he went up to the conference room. A short but dignified figure walked toward him in the aisle, plodding in that heavy gait of those few who were born and raised on the Outer Planets, with the far weaker gravity of their centrifuge-cities.

"Marc!" he said in greeting though the Neptunian frowned at him.

"You're late, Bill, or don't you know?" he said in that gruff, familiar voice.

"I know," he said. "Sahsha told me. But she also said that I've been rescheduled after the Venusian representative..."

"And he's just about to finish. We'd better hurry."

"Well, at least he's finishing."

"That's in bad taste and you know it," Marc said.

Bill laughed. "Yeah, I know. I'll try to behave."

Venusians have had a reputation, for a long time now, unfounded for the most part, of talking so slowly that they put most people to sleep. Something to do with an effect of some of the gases left over from their terraforming days on the brain's speech center, or so the comedians say. But one thing was for certain, Senator Valker of Venus was one hell of a bore.

They sat near the podium. "Hope we make it before Earthship Two’s transmission," Bill said. Earthship Two’s “pseudo-Seren” transmitter allowed 8-bit data transmissions at two and a half times the speed of light. "Sit with me awhile, Marc. I'm a little jittery.”

"I have to get back to my seat," Marc replied.

"Just a little while."

"All right." He gestured at a page to bring him a folding chair.

"You know," Marc said as he sat down, "I really went out on a limb for you. Did those computers of yours get anything more out of it?"

"Wait 'til I get on the stage."

The Venusian was finally winding down. It was a speech about completely demilitarizing the Outer Planets, a very, very old thorny issue for the U.N.

The Treaty notwithstanding, garrisons on the Outer Planets were still there, Marines and battleships at the ready. With the Phobos rebellion and the Asteroid Wars half a generation ago still fresh in the minds of the people, the question of full demilitarization was a premature one. It was only by a stroke of luck that the garrisons of the old Alliance were still intact and the Mars colonists were able to fight off a band of fanatics from Phobos that ransacked and looted the old bases on Mars for supplies and technology, and hid out in the sparsely cluttered area between Mars and Jupiter, their ships masquerading as asteroids.

Though the asteroids were scattered far and wide, there was enough uncatalogued debris there to fool spaceship tracking, and give the pirates the chance to pounce on unsuspecting travelers or lay siege to the Outer Planets.

Only the reactivation of the old Allied bases helped stave off this new threat to the Peace. It was a time when the Treaties themselves were put to the test. As it happened, Bill was there. He had, in fact, played a major though largely unknown role in the ending of the Asteroid Wars.

The Venusian finished his speech and was greeted with mild applause as he walked back to his place.

"Thank you Senator Valker," the floor leader said, as he took over from the Venusian. "I now call the question: Please signify your assent in the usual manner." The House Speaker waited the prerequisite time and then banged his gavel. "Very well," he said, "By mutual consent, the proposal is postponed for consideration at a later time on the calendar.” Not a surprising turn of events.

He consulted his pad as well as some papers and continued with the day's agenda. "'In a special privilege speech,'" he read off the sheet, "'the eminent Doctor William Steele is to speak of a very important scientific announcement.'" He turned to Marc and Bill. "Doctor?" he said.

"This is it," Bill said to Marc, gave him a thumbs-up sign and climbed onto the stage.

"Thank you Mr. Speaker," he said, and waited for the polite applause to die down.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the United Nations," he began, "as many of you know, the world media has been spreading rumors of a momentous discovery I and my associates have made in our laboratories on Triton. I have, however, held my silence.

"Yes, it is indeed a momentous discovery. This discovery will probably go down in our history as one of Humanity's milestones. But I had to wait until I was sure. I would be remiss in my duties as a scientist if I didn't.

"You see, like many of today's scientists, I have been preoccupied by the fact that, even as we develop spacecraft with speeds approaching that of light, and technology that can counteract the effects of relativity, our navigation and communication technology have been unable to remain in step. Hence, our problems in communicating with our multi-generational starships and in keeping track of them, even navigating them. Even adapting Dr. Ava McCarthy’s Seren technology to give our new ships faster-than-light communications is not enough.

"Recently, I have developed a system by which I can extract real-time data from sources light-years away with no time lag, no problems with the Doppler Effect nor signal attenuation because of distance."

The representatives from the Outer Planets listened with interest while the others simply looked bored. They were "Groundhogs" - the new slang term for those who hadn't left the planet and visited space. Unlike “Spacers,” they weren't familiar with, nor very much interested in such matters. To the Spacer, the importance of such things was very apparent. Indeed, unfamiliarity with these things usually meant life or death.

Bill nervously looked at his watch and continued with his speech.

"During experiments, I accidentally detected an intermediate wave form similar to radio waves except that it propagates itself in what we may term as 'Hyper-Space' or 'Hyper-Dimensions' - measurable yet, for all intents and purposes, non-existent regions of space. We do not yet know where or what these regions of non-space are, exactly, but we have postulated that perhaps they are regions of space of a universe parallel to but separate from our own.

"If we were able to enter and leave this theoretical universe at will, we could reappear at any point in our own universe without elapsed time or wasted energy, for effectively we would not have traveled in our universe at all.

"As of now, I have not been successful in moving physical matter in and out of this parallel universe except for this unique energy wave-form.

"During these past few months, I have been perfecting my generator and receiver for this wave-form which I call Phase-Wave, for it involves an electromagnetic process whereby, at a certain phase in the process's cycle, a radio signal is spontaneously transmitted as well as a duplicate signal that 'leaves' our universe and, at another phase of the cycle, re-enters our universe.

"Controlling the departure and arrival points depends on the strength of the signal as well as the particular frequency of the oscillations of the various forces of the process.

"In summary then," he continued, "I have been successful in transmitting and receiving these radio wave-like emissions that can pass from one point in our space to another point without traveling in it. That means that we can send and receive messages, and gather information from light-years away, seemingly without interference or loss in time."

He paused and took a deep breath to collect his thoughts, and continued.

"I believe that this discovery, ladies and gentlemen, is important enough to have warranted its inclusion in today's calendar but, yet, this is not the only reason for my being here today."

He looked up at the observation gallery and nodded to Sahsha. She turned away from the window in search of the sergeant-at-arms.

Bill dug out a small recording chip from his pocket and went off-stage and whispered to a page. He handed her the chip and walked back to the podium.

"In the course of my experiments," he said into the podium's microphone, "I found that my phase-wave receiver was able to pick up regular electromagnetic signals, including radio. Over the past month, we picked up many signals. Most of them were normal everyday radio traffic from almost every point in the system, except for one very weak but distinct message from very far away."

He waited a few nervous moments as the house technicians readied the room's public address system for his short recording.

Soon, loud crashing static assailed everyone's ears. The delegates flinched but stayed in their places. By now, those previously uninterested were intrigued by Bill's theatrics and waited in barely suppressed anticipation. Bill's flamboyant style was well known across the entire system, and it usually preceded something good. The other Spacer delegates were also listening anxiously. They seemed to have caught on to what Bill was doing.

The static faded to eerie silence but for short stuttering bursts, and these too faded away.

Suddenly, a clear, high and melodious female voice broke the silence with a word. It sounded something like "T'chahn!"

It was answered by a different voice, an odd one that seemed somehow alien. It sounded like the person was suffering from a severe bout of cold, yet the single word it spoke, for it was a word, was clear and undistorted.

"T'chahn!" it answered.

The two voices continued. It was a conversation. But, in what language no one could say. Those listening to the U.N. VOX Translation System computer feed were also mystified. At first, it seemed to fail to start. After it did kick on, it was seconds behind the recording. It was like listening to two conversations at the same time.

What those heard via earphone was weird:

"Greetings!" the female voice said.

"Greetings!" the other voice answered. This oddly echoing voice seemed to be two voices overlapping each other - a male and a female voice.

A very disjointed conversation followed - a sure sign of a crashing translation program.

"Request ... direction ... permission to enter ..."

"Permission ... to welcome ..."

"Our thanks ... friend ... of this place …"

"Your ... flying ... not wet ..."

"The same ... to fly ... of yours."

Then static faded in, completely obscuring the voices.

The whole recording perhaps lasted less than thirty seconds, yet the reaction of the people was almost like shock: The whole delegation fell into silence with the static of the remainder of the recording - the only sound to be heard in the room.

A technician switched it off and that seemed to break the people out of their spell. Slowly, like a tide, snatches of conversation spread through the room. Many of the delegates were gesticulating wildly and even the usually sedate Spacers were excited.

It was a long time before the Speaker of the House thought to use his gavel. Bill fidgeted and looked at his watch again.

The speaker had to pound the gavel a long time and to call for silence twice before the various dignitaries behaved.

"Order, please, ladies and gentlemen," he said again.

A hand near the back waved for attention.

"The representative from Mars is recognized. Yes, Madam."

A deeply tanned woman stood and faced Bill.

"Doctor, this, uh, recording - did you get more?"

"No, Ma’am, I'm sorry. I was experimenting with the receiver at the time, and I passed the, umm, frequency, before I realized it."

"Have you confirmed the language?"

"Well, I tried to, Ma’am but I failed. One of the reasons I flew all the way from Triton to New York was to get a chance to use the U.S. Library of Congress database. As you know, New York has one of the most complete databases regarding national customs and culture, including languages and dialects.

"Anyway, the only thing I have been able to ascertain was the fact that this is not a Terran language. And I am sure that this will be verified as soon as I consult the library."

Another hubbub was growing and the Speaker pounded his gavel again to forestall it.

"There are very intriguing similarities to some obscure European dialects, to be sure," Bill said, "but I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that this message is not of the Earth."

The U.N. delegates exploded. Each tried to yell above the other, firing questions at Bill one after the other.

The Speaker of the House banged his gavel until the top flew off and still the confusion continued.

He pounded on his podium with his palm instead, and yelled over the noise.

"Order," he shouted. "I will have order or this session will be postponed!"

Bill waited calmly for the noise to die down.

It took a few minutes but the cacophony did die down. The Speaker sighed and addressed the delegates. "Ladies and Gentlemen of the U.N., we must have order for us to be able to accomplish anything. Press your indicators or raise your hands if you want to be recognized."

He spotted someone waving. "The representative from the United African Nations is recognized."

The representative stood. "I would like to ask the doctor about the authenticity of the recording. Is it possible, Doctor, that this recording that you have played for us is just another routine Earth signal that you have inadvertently intercepted? If garbled enough, could it have been mistaken for a foreign, even alien language?"

Bill seemed to ponder the question. "Yes, sir, it's possible. I don't see why not. But, if so, then all my work regarding Phase-Wave is all wrong.” He smiled. “You also have to consider the fact that the few words that you heard translated were actually unrecognizable and verifiably not of any known human language. Very unlikely, sir."

The ambassador frowned. "Well then, couldn't it be that someone is doing this to you deliberately? I mean, couldn't someone fake this supposedly non-human language?"

Bill smiled. "I thought of that right off," he said. "I checked with my computers and the way the words are put together indicates a language structure. Analysis of the voices shows that there are inflections in certain parts of the dialogue, indicating certain specific meanings to these particular 'words.' Let me explain.

"Assuming that the cultural values and views, as pertaining to societal customs approximate ours - the dominant Chinese-American-European western community of Earth - I mean, our computer systems are able to detect the meanings of sentences and phrases by referring to their records of existing languages and language structures, and by the way they are spoken. There are many racial constants in the way all humans speak. These can be identified and catalogued and, hence, analyzed. I have used this technology to decipher this 'conversation.'

"The way a person says a word can indicate the meaning. The way he stresses particular vowels, the minute hesitations, in fact the entire 'feel' of his voice can indicate meaning as well as feeling. And in a whole sentence, the many minute hesitations, intonations and stresses of each particular word in the sentence sets up a particular pattern easily recognizable and is as distinct as a signature. This is irrefutable proof of it being a genuine language.

"It has been proven that people always pause before each phrase they speak. These very minute pauses are the person pausing to pick out the particular word or phrase out of his stock of vocabulary that he has been accumulating all throughout his life. The frequency of usage is inversely proportional to the length of pauses he makes, so long as it is consistent with his grammatical rules. Thus, if a person uses a word frequently, the pauses are shorter.

"All these are indicative of a true language, and many of these indicators and clues are present in the recording."

The murmuring among the delegates was increasing. The speaker banged on his podium. "Please go on, Doctor."

"Thank you, sir," he said to the speaker. He looked at his watch again and changed to a different tack.

"Each clue to a language has its counterpart mark indicating the falsity of a language. Most governments, I am sure, employ secret codes for sending communiqués and messages. I assure you that each code can be proven beyond a doubt that it is only a code and not a genuine language in the way that I described."

The delegates stirred nervously. Bill raised his hand. "Let me assure you that such codes are not easily decipherable." He smiled, as these words seemed to calm them down. "It is that these are only codes and intended only as such, and are therefore easily recognized as such.

"In order for this fraud message, if it is a fraud, to be as good as it was, the counterfeiter must have created his own complete language from scratch, with its own rules of grammar and set of words, intonation and pronunciation, practicing constantly for quite a while and, well, the whole lot of it. And that, I believe, though possible, is highly unlikely."

Another signal light flashed. "The representative from Neptune. Yes?"

"Doctor, have you tried to interpret this, uh, 'conversation?'"

Bill smiled at the planted question. "Yes, Doctor, I have attempted to. Those of you who listened to the computer perhaps heard a fragmented conversation. May we have the house technician play back the whole translation for all to hear?"

They waited for a few moments as the computer operator reset the recording and soon they heard the weird, fragmented English translation of the conversation.

Bill waited a moment for the people to digest this. "Let me explain what happened, ladies and gentlemen. The whole translation started many seconds late. This indicates that the computer did not have a base to compare it with. As you know, most Terran languages have many similarities. The computer found too few similarities and had to extrapolate as the conversation progressed. This accounts for the fragmented conversation.

"The first word, the 'Greetings,' was only an assumption on the part of the computer. It extrapolated this probably from the tone, the exclamation, and other peripheral indicators, such as the fact that it was the first word in the conversation.

"If you will notice, the first voice is female. However, the second voice seemed to be two people talking together. This indicates that the computer could not identify the gender, and the computer was unable to decide which of its library of voices to use in place of the alien’s.

"About the rest of the conversation, most of it is extrapolation again, using the kinds of clues which I mentioned.” He took a moment to get his valise from beside the podium. He pulled out a sheet of computer paper. "The final analysis is all generalization, I'm sorry to say."

He took a moment to scan the sheet. "The conversation is between the female communications officer of a spacecraft and the docking officer of a space station. No names were mentioned in the conversation, or if there were, we were not able to recognize them. The first two words were greetings between the two. The conversation is all about the female asking clearance to rendezvous, most probably to dock, with the space station and how the docking officer gave permission."

He smiled as he read the rest of the sheet. "The latter part of the conversation seems to be the comm officer admonishing the docking officer to 'never let your wings get dry.' It seems to be a joke between the two as the tone of voice indicates. The docking officer is clearly amused and returns the joke. The rest of the message is only parting words, not very important."

He put the paper back in his valise and continued. "What we can gather from this is that it is a conversation between two dissimilar species, as indicated by the computer's inability to determine the gender of one of them while easily identifying the other's. One of them seems to be a winged species, or maybe both are. The fact that they are able to converse with one another easily gives credence to some kind of close relationship between the two. Beyond that the computers cannot add more."

Most of the delegates were stunned. It was one of mankind's most frustrating questions answered in a lump. Some were openly skeptical.

A signal light and a waving hand. "The representative from the Russian Republics."

"Doctor, are you sure that this, hmm, message, is genuine and not some sort of fabrication on your part?" the delegate said, sarcasm very apparent in his voice.

Bill's face turned crimson. He took a couple of deep breaths. "I am an ethical scientist, sir," he said calmly, “and a highly reputable one, if I may say so. My achievements attest to this." The only way he could have laid it on thicker was by enumerating his one-hundred-and-one awards and patents that made him the most well known scientific authority in the eight worlds. "I find it beneath my dignity to even consider your insinuation, sir. If you feel that way, then I will be happy not to share my knowledge of Phase-Wave with your government.” “That'll shut him up,” he thought.

The Russian delegate sat down, grumbling.

Another delegate signaled. "The representative of the European Community of Nations. Yes, madam?"

The plump woman stood up. "Doctor, although I see some importance in all this, I haven't heard what you want from us. What is it exactly that you need from this body?"

"Thank you Ma’am, I'm about to get to that part."

He paused for a moment, looking for a way to put his thoughts into words.

"Have you ever heard of SETI, Ma’am? No? Well, SETI stands for The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a late-twentieth century scientific program searching for proof of life on other worlds. They used to send radio messages out into space to sort of announce our existence to our immediate neighbors. Of course, by the time these reached any intelligent life capable of understanding them, they were probably too fragmented and faded for them to make anything of the signals other than as random radio interference.

"With the United Nations' help, I intend to develop the Phase-Wave technology to achieve this goal. I intend to establish Phase-Wave stations throughout the system, and make permanent two-way communication possible with our interstellar neighbors."

"A very idealistic goal, Doctor, and one with no immediate practical value."

"On the contrary, Ma’am. This technology can be applied to domestic use, and improve our communication facilities, weather tracking, navigation systems, and reduce their cost by a very great deal.”

“Weather tracking, Doctor?”

“Think of Phase-Wave as an analogue of radio. Therefore, Phase-Wave can be adapted to Doppler radar technology to and other weather detection systems.”

“Thank you.”

“In any case, I'm ready to show you a small demonstration to very graphically prove this point."

He walked to the foot of the stage and called a page. "Have you seen Sahsha, I mean Miss Delyer?" He glanced at the glass observation booth, saw a frantically waving figure. "Never mind."

He waved back. Sahsha gestured at the stage. Bill glanced back and saw a technician pushing a table on casters onto the middle of the stage, with a package on top.

He walked backed to the podium, reached for the portable audio pickup and walked to the table.

"I have set up this little demo with the help of Doctor Bidwell's children that I am sure you will find very amusing. However, I will need the good doctor with me. Marc?"

Old Marc stood up, if a little quizzically, and made his slow way to the stage.

Marc held his hand over the microphone and whispered in Bill's ear. "Listen, what's all this funny stuff?"

"Trust me. Just play along, okay?" He lifted Marc's hand from the pickup and faced the delegates.

"Some of you may know that the Doctor here has two sons, twins by the way. I have set up a video transmitter to accomplish what has not been accomplished before: a deep-space conversation in real-time."

Bill reached down and switched on the receiver. A square of light hit the wall behind them just below the U.N. logo. Slowly, it became more distinct, showing a picture of a children's room, complete with cribs, toys piled high and assorted baby clothes scattered helter-skelter. In the foreground was a playpen, empty at the moment. Old Marc turned crimson. His wife, Miriam, never was a good housekeeper and now, here it is, for all the worlds to see. “Damn it, why couldn't Bill have warned me,” he thought.

A tall, pretty girl in a housecoat came into the camera's range: Miriam, Marc's wife.

"Hi Marc, hi Bill." The image waved. Reference-and-picture was in synch as the image seemed to wave to them.

"Where are you two?" she asked. "When did you come in? No flights are scheduled for today. I hope you don't stay out too long. The kids miss you. And you, Bill? When are you coming to eat with us? The kids've been asking for you. 'Where's Uncle Willy, where's Uncle Willy,' they keep asking ...'” the woman kept chattering on. Obviously, she didn't know that she had the whole U.N. for an audience, and she thought they'd just arrived back on Triton.

Marc's face went to an even darker shade of crimson, clearly embarrassed. Bill whispered something into his ear.

"Miriam, dear,” he said to the image, “let this all wait 'til later. Bill wants you to bring the kids to their room, so the Vid scanner can pick them up."

The image on the screen took several seconds before reacting. Typical transmission delay for Seren deep space calls. The extremely expensive wormhole-based Seren system allows communication reception at 1,073.64 times the speed of light. Even so, communications between Earth and Neptune still had about a 12 to 20-second delay.

"Why?" Miriam asked Marc, "Is something wrong?"

"No, dear, I'll explain later. Can you bring them out, please? But make sure to put them in their own cribs, okay?"

"All right," she said after a lengthy delay. She moved out of range. While waiting, Marc switched on another receiver, and another image of the room popped up, this time from a different angle.

The picture was curiously flat with virtually no depth resolution at all; very different from the 3-D images that were standard in all video transmissions. This flat image showed another playpen similar to the first one, also empty at the moment.

Soon, Miriam came back. The whole room was buzzing with excitement. She entered the first picture, the 3-D one, bringing two bundles, and laid down one of the small infants in the playpen. She left that picture and she appeared in the second 2-D one, laying the second baby in the second crib as well. After putting each baby down, they immediately stood up, grasping the bar of their individual playpens in their small chubby hands. Obviously, they were twins. They smiled disarmingly and the delegates laughed in delight.

Miriam looked up into the scanner. "Is that all, Marc?" She looked confused.

"That's fine, Miriam. Would you mind moving out of range of the camera?" She looked even more puzzled but she moved to the back of the room.

With a small smile on his lips, Bill faced Marc. "Now, Marc," he said, speaking directly into the mic, "I want you to wave at them."

Marc paused and smiled. He turned to the images of his children smiling expectantly. He raised his hand, waved and said, "Hi, kids!"

The children smiled even more. David, the one in the 2-D screen, immediately let go of the bar and waved his hands in the air. "Dada!" he said at the top of his voice. The people watching burst into laughter. The infant started to totter and lose his balance. He fell on his back and immediately started to cry. The mother came in like a shot and cradled Davie in her arms.

His brother Peter, on the other hand, the one in the 3-D screen, was still looking expectantly. Only after several long seconds did he react. He was a little smarter than his brother, though, as he kept one hand on the bar.

"Dada!" he said.

In the other 2-D screen, Miriam was talking to the crying baby. "Hush, dear." She looked up to the scanner. "Better call later, Marc. Poor Davie's crying."

"Of course, Miriam. Later. Out." Bill switched off the projectors and the two pictures went out. Bill and Marc turned to the delegates. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "what you saw were two deep-space transmissions from Neptune, coming from Doctor Bidwell's home on Triton." Marc stepped off the stage, his part of the presentation over.

"Marc's home, the United Satellites of Neptune, is, as some of you know, hundreds of millions of miles away from the Earth at this particular time. At this time in Neptune's cycle, it takes about twelve seconds for a message to reach Earth and a return answer to reach Neptune via tight-beam high-power Seren transmissions. Obviously, that is not what happened on the two-dimensional transmission you saw. There was no delay at all. No, let me correct that. My calculations show that estimated time lag is about zero point zero-zero-zero-zero-one of one nanosecond, due to the electronics of the transmitters, and not because of delay in the transmission. That, ladies and gentlemen, is an example of a Phase-Wave broadcast."

There was absolute silence in the hall. A signal light flashed. The delegate from the Russian Republics.

Before the floor leader could recognize the man, Bill quickly said, "I am sure some of you wonder whether this entire presentation is a hoax or not. That is why I have cooked up another demonstration for you."

He walked back to the podium and retrieved something from his valise, another printout. "As you know, the U.N. computers are connected to the Terran Exploration Center on Phobos. We here can therefore listen in to the communications band monitoring transmissions from Earthship Two. We can hear whatever message Phobos Center receives from Earthship Two even as they receive it, with a little delay via Seren transmission.

He paused, looked at his watch and directed a question to the U.N. computer. "Computer!" he said, triggering the system's on-line interactive audio interface program. "What is the status of Earthship Two as of last report?"

A flat, mechanical voice answered. "Earthship Two was last contacted forty-five days ago. Ship was then two light-months out of the solar system, three degrees above the plane of the ecliptic..."

"Thank you, endit. Sadly, ladies and gentlemen, Earthship Two’s comms only transmit at 2.5 times the speed of light. The verbal report Earthship Two is required to send every two weeks will be one and a half months old. If the Captain follows the mission plans, she would have sent one six weeks ago. Phobos should have received it and it will be relayed here via Seren transmission in about ..." he looked at his wrist, "... fifteen minutes. Computer!"

"Acknowledged," the computer answered.

"Patch in the Seren monitoring band of Phobos Center into the conference hall, please." A dull hissing came from the overhead speakers, deep space static.

Bill held up the printout in his hand. "Ladies and gentlemen, I intercepted that message six weeks ago. Here is the text of the audio portion of the message.

"'Phobos Center,'" Bill quoted, "'this is Captain Esteban of Earthship Two, commencing message eighty-eight stroke six stroke four. All is well aboard. All systems functioning and conforming to project programming. We had a small problem a few days ago. Particle shield on quad eighteen failed momentarily and the drive irradiated a small part of our hydroponics lab. No one affected except a few strains of radishes and carrots. Results should be interesting after a few weeks. We've also had to reduce power by ten percent to prevent damage. All's well now and still within error margin.'

"Captain Esteban continues with the report proper, with the rest of her logs and, hmmm, she closes the report after about thirty minutes. I'm sure you don't want to hear the rest of it."

He folded the paper and pushed it into his valise. "Now, the final proof. In a few minutes, we will hear the same message, as relayed by the Phobos Center."

The entire delegation's attention was dragged to the overhead speakers. All they heard was the hissing static of space. And though they had more than ten minutes to wait, they all sat patiently. Eventually, the static slowly gave way to silence. Suddenly, the voice of Captain Esteban could be heard: "Phobos Center, this Captain Esteban of Earthship Two, commencing message eighty-eight stroke six stroke four. All is well... "

The rest of the message continued, word for word exactly the same as what Bill had said. Clapping started spontaneously. Afterwards, no one will remember who started it.

Bill said, just above the din, "I also have the Captain's other two transmissions that she sent afterwards, if you'd like to hear them..." The clapping became deafening, the cheers drowning Captain Esteban's voice.

Bill's face brightened, and he smiled.

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About the author

Bobbi-C

  • Washington DC
  • Mistress of Confusion

Bio: Bobbi Cabot is a transgender girl in her thirties (35 y.o. as of 2016), who transitioned in 2005. She is known as "Roberta J. Cabot," "Bobbie-C," "Bobbie," "Bobbi" and "Bobbi-C" in the sites where she posts her stories.

Though not a professional writer, Bobbi is under the delusion that she writes passably well and indulges this delusion by sometimes posting stories, which is, thankfully, very seldom.

Bobbi's day job (the phrase "day job" is hereby stressed) involves being the big cheese of the overseas BPO practice of a Top 100 computer technology corporation.

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