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Shepherd Moon, Chapter 2: Bubble Memory

 

Jawharal Bhavnani-Singh, a big-muscled Bengali almost two meters tall, was quietly cursing at the lab terminal. The computer program was on the blink again after some ignorant technician forgot to re-seal the lock on a magnetic memory-suspension circuit on the main motherboard of the station's mainframe. As a result, a large chunk of the cipher program had slowly randomized into complete uselessness.

"Goddammit," he shouted at the duty officer, "get me the maintenance personnel roster!"

Responding to his boss's angry command, Alexi rushed to the large bulletin board of the control station and ripped off a printed list of the day's duty personnel. Other pieces of paper flew off as their magnetic clasps were pulled out.

He ran back and handed it to Singh. "Here it is, Boss," he said, trepidation in his voice. Singh's extremely short temper was well known all over Triton base.

He ripped the sheet out of Alexi's hand and quickly scanned it. His eyes stopped on a particular name. "Aha, here it is. Hua Sung!"

He swung around in his swivel chair. "Find Hua Sung," he said to the trembling officer, "get him and bring him to me. Now!" Alexi ran off to start his manhunt.

He turned to his assistant. "I'm gonna find the smartass down in Base Ten who assigned us that SOB and I swear his head's gonna roll." He drew a finger across his neck.

His assistant laughed. "You better cool it, Jerry, or you'll bust a vein the way your blood pressure's up. Take it easy on Hua Sung. He's just a cadet fresh out of Academy."

The Indian paused, took a breath and tried to calm down. He sighed and laughed a little ruefully. "Yeah, I guess you're right, Phil." He gestured at the computer terminal. "It's just that the cipher program is shot and we're gonna have to translate manually. Again. That pisses me off."

"Speaking of translating," Phil said, and brought out five six-inch thick loose-leaf binders, which constituted a year’s worth of work. It was the hard-copy version of all that they knew of the Elyran language, the language of the first recording of an extra-terrestrial conversation first heard in the halls of the U.N. over a year ago. They were the result of deep analysis of all the audio and video intercepts that they have intercepted.

They were also working on the other galactic languages, but at the moment, priority was given to Elyran.

Like all of the colony cities, Triton Station didn’t really stock paper, but hardcopies are occasionally needed, such as now. The paper used in the binders was made from cellulose from the station’s recyclable trash and refuse.

With a grimace of distaste, Singh dropped the top binder onto his desk with a thud, and started punching up the latest audio and video intercepts on his terminal. "This is gonna be another long shift," he said.

It was one year after Bill made his momentous announcement to the U.N. that made Triton Center possible, presently under the fuming Jawharal Bhavnani-Singh's (Jerry to his Western friends) expert command. Jerry's title of 'Commander' was a civilian rather than a real military position. Everyone at Triton Center, in fact all CETI personnel, were kept strictly civilian.

Triton Center was one of the seventeen Terran Phase-Wave bases (“Terran” because they were under the direct control of the U.N. instead of the local colonial governments) scattered in the system. These seventeen bases, officially under U.N. management, were the working arm of the new CETI Council.

The name CETI was borrowed from an old twentieth century organization (at least the acronym, that is). Now it means the 'Council on Extra-terrestrial Intelligence'. The organization of this new U.N. department was pushed on by the controversy of Dr. Steele's announcement, which almost immediately grew to mammoth proportions after its release to the press.

Originally, the main thrust of the CETI Movement was the development of the new science of Phase-Wave. The CETI team, working under the leadership of Dr. Steele, made it practicable enough to convert most communication and tracking systems to the new technology. The main problem was that the old technology couldn't be interfaced with the new one. Phase-Wave systems could intercept radio signals, but could not send signals that could be received by a radio-based system.

The first prototype of a Radio/Phase-Wave transmitter was being developed but it was everyone's opinion, even Bill's, that the device would not work. But such a device was necessary for the second major step in the CETI program. So, regardless of this, they pushed on.

Presently, the spearhead of the CETI program was down in one of the base's conference rooms discussing the latest, and by far, one of the most important projects of the program, with the base's research team.

"Good job," Bill was saying to the team while reading the folder in his hand, "but a little too long, don't you think? And too much detail. How long will the broadcast last?"

"A little over an hour," answered one of the systems specialists across the enormous round table cluttered with portable computers, printouts and disks. "That includes the visuals, too."

"One hour? Whew! Talk about long. It shouldn't go over ten minutes and even that's too long."

A small mousy man across the table answered. "You must understand, Doctor, we can't possibly fit a million years of Earth history and evolution into a ten-minute program. It's just not possible."

"This is not an anthropology class, Doctor, just a friendly ‘Hello,’ as we agreed. An hour is too much. Furthermore..." He got up and walked over to a large display screen. He punched up some instructions on the keyboard.

The screen lit up with a picture of the galaxy. Bill punched up more commands and the picture zoomed in on a small part of the picture, towards the edge of the milky-white saucer. A small arrow appeared, pointing to a small star.

"We are here. We control this small area of space, our Solar System." The arrow moved around a little. "That comprises the total territory of Homo Sapiens." He punched in more instructions and the picture zoomed out enough to show a small arm-like band of stars with the Sun at the edge of the picture.

"Now, the people we want to reach are about here and they control this area of space." The little arrow circled almost the entire arm. "They go from system to system as easily as we go from, say, Earth to Jupiter. They have true space travel, gentlemen, we do not."

"That much is obvious, Doctor," one of them said, "but what is the connection?"

"Don't you see? Such a capability would give rise to a different kind of cultural structure. I mean, getting to the home world of your nearest neighbor would be as easy as a hop on the next space liner. They're a community, gentlemen.

"As unacknowledged neighbors, our coming in out of the cold would make us the outsiders to this community, the newest people to move into the neighborhood. As such, we have to be careful with the social and political norms.

"And," he continued, "we have to be careful not to give too much information about ourselves away. We can't afford to. What if we were walking into an interplanetary war or something? We simply don't know enough, and we can't afford to gamble with the System just because we thought that they'd be friendly."

The group leader smiled indulgently. "I thought that all of us have grown out of the old fears about alien life. I'm surprised at you, Doctor. No one said that xenophobia was part of your psychological profile."

Bill smiled a little at that. "Military doctrine, Doctor, refers to a threat not in the context of intent but in capabilities. We cannot gamble with the race. We must be sure. We cannot spoon-feed these people with information that can be used against us."

The leader waved his arms in exasperation and continued. "All right. Granted that you are correct, that we don't know that much about our interstellar neighbors, but such a gross condition of, shall we say, antisocial tendencies or political unrest would show up in your Phase-Wave intercepts. Have they?"

Bill hesitated, "Well, there have been some, hmm, indications of such things."

The three scientists sat up in alarm. "What?" the group leader said, "Are you saying that..."

Bill interrupted. "Forget what I said. The point is that we can't show up with open arms and expect them to do the same. We just can't afford to gamble. If, and I'm saying if, it comes down to that, do you think we can defend ourselves against them? Hell, they'd just be taking pot shots at us. We can't even chase them away if we needed to, not to mention us being outnumbered by a whole hell of a lot."

One of the other scientists crossed his arms. "All right, then, what would you suggest we do? Hide from these imagined hordes of interstellar psychopaths? I thought the whole point of the broadcast was to make them notice us."

Bill took a deep breath. "Everyone here realizes the necessity of contacting these other races, Doctor. It is a necessary part of the growth of a species. But I must stress caution. We are dealing with an unknown factor. We must move in the most circumspect manner when dealing with these people.

"If and when we get that radio/Phase-Wave transmitter working, and I hope that will be soon, the broadcast should be limited to the most basic information. A picture of our people, glimpses of our culture, our civilization, the location of our system - for apparently they do not know that we are here - snapshots of human life and society. Something like that, gentlemen, would be enough. And even that may be too much."

"But the objective here is..."

"The objective here is simply to make contact. That and that alone, Doctor." Bill looked at the man straight in the eye. "Make the program the way I want it, Doctor, and I guarantee you that we will be speaking to them face-to-face inside of a year."

The doctor looked at him. "All right," he said. "We'll do it your way." He chuckled. "It's not as if we had a choice, Doctor. You're the boss, after all."

"You always have a choice, Doctor. That's what it's all about. I'd rather have your grudging cooperation than blind obedience. We're not in the Navy, you know. Thank God we're not in the Navy," he said with a laugh, a personal joke.

"Now," he said, "can I see a copy of the material you've put together again?"

They gave him back the thick folder. Bill had especially asked them to print up the script (printed documents sere not the norm anymore) so that editing and adding notes would be more convenient.

Bill sat down and produced a large marker pen and proceeded to cross off lines and, as each line was crossed, the scientists either winced or frowned.

"Doctor," one of them said, "as for the things you were alluding to, can you..."

The hissing of the room's pressure door interrupted him. Four people rushed in, visibly hurried. Two of them Professor Jennifer Priestly and Ambassador Marcus Bidwell - both members, along with Bill, of the fifteen-member CETI council. The other two were Walter Thorpe, Bill's personal assistant, and the other Sahsha Delyer, U.N. liaison officer for the CETI Program.

Bill looked up and smiled in greeting. "Sorry we're late," Walter was saying, "but the tubes were jam-packed. Shift-change, you know."

Out of all the available seats, Jennifer and Sahsha rushed to the ones on either side of Bill. Walter frowned while the rest smiled amusedly. The doctor's effect on women was no secret in the base. Bill was, at best, uneasy and uncomfortable with this “curse,” as he thought of it, while his assistant was just exasperated with it. It was Walter's opinion that Bill, being as busy and important as he was, didn't need the distraction. Jealousy didn't enter into this attitude of his. Perhaps before, when he had just started working for him. But as he came to know the man, his respect for him grew. He was, in fact, in awe of him and his accomplishments. Knowing him personally and being his friend, Walter had come to content himself with the thought that some had it and some just didn't.

Walter let Sahsha have the seat to Bill's left that was customarily his, and sat down to her left instead.

"Good morning, Bill," Jennifer said breathlessly, almost on his face, and held his right hand.

"It's the afternoon," said Sahsha menacingly.

"Uh, good afternoon, Jen," Bill stuttered.

"I just can't get used to space time," Jennifer said, "It's just so different." Jennifer was far from being a vacuous socialite, but she couldn’t help being flirtatious around Bill.

"Yes, it does take a little intelligence to figure it out," Sahsha said venomously. Jennifer glared back.

To forestall any more bickering, he hastily thrusted the folder he was changing to Jennifer and Marc, and asked them to do a little editing.

"I just found out that the material was a bit over-long. I was just making a few deletions."

"Yes, I can see your 'few' deletions," Marc said, looking over Bill's corrections.

"See if you can trim it down some more, Marc." Marc took the folder, reached for a pen of his own and started crossing off more lines.

"Jen?" Bill held out a copy to her.

Jennifer pouted, looking stubborn, but gave in and conferred with Marc about the changes. Bill took the opportunity to extricate himself from this sticky situation and went to the water cooler for a drink. Sahsha followed and got another cup.

Walter went over and handed Bill some printed sheets. "Here's a partial transcript of today's intercepts, Bill."

Bill looked puzzled. "Why partial? And why printed? Something wrong?"

"Uh, Phil said to tell you that Jerry said that someone fouled up the cipher program again."

Bill groaned. "Don't tell me. Hua Sung!"

Walter grinned. "How did you know?"

"Ever since Sanchez over at Base Ten foisted him off on us things have been going wrong all over. I think he's a jinx. I never was one for putting raw recruits on the staff."

"Want me to trade him off?"

"No, never mind. Helium-bubble memory is fairly new technology. Anyone could have messed it up. He'll probably get better after he gets the hang of things around here."

Bill started reading through the papers at a fast clip. Walter always wondered how he was able to do that. His profile never said anything about a photographic memory. "Here," Bill said after a few moments, "these are okay. Better phase-wave these to Earth Base quick."

"Right away," Walter said, and went off.

Bill turned to Sahsha, who was, at the moment, extremely delighted that she had Bill all to herself. "Well, Sahsha," he said, "how's everything?"

"Pretty good," she said as she leaned a little bit closer. "I'm liaison officer to you guys now."

"Well, I'll be... Congratulations!"

"Actually, I'm filling in for Mr. Li while he's on vacation, but if I do well, they say I might fill in permanently."

"You'll do fine." Bill cocked his head towards Jennifer who was conferring with Marc and the research team. "I see you've met Jen."

"You mean 'the Barracuda.' Yes I've met her. We sat together in the shuttle."

Bill laughed. "I know what you mean."

After chatting for a while the research team came over.

"Excuse me, Doctor," the team leader began, "but we've been going over the material with Ms. Priestly and the ambassador and, well, can we talk it over?"

"By all means." Bill led everyone back to the table.

"Now, what is the problem?"

"The problem? Well, take a look at it yourself." He flopped the corrected folder down and Bill picked it up.

"Hmm, I see what you mean."

"They've pretty much deleted the whole lot of it! If we go by this, about ninety-nine percent of the material will be taken out. I mean, we've worked on this thing for over six months. We've had to work with the US National Geographic Society as well as a lot of other organizations and people to put this together, not to mention the money that we spent. Now you're asking us to throw all that away!"

Bill thought it over. "I had the impression that you agreed with me, Doctor."

"Agreed with you? Seriously, Doctor. Alien goblins and bug-eyed monsters?"

"No, Doctor, I was very serious."

"I was joking about that xenophobia thing, but on second thought, maybe you should get yourself analyzed. My god, Doctor! Paranoia is the only word I can think of."

Marc raised his hand. "Gentlemen, please. Before everyone gets hot under the collar, let us explain." He tapped the folder. "There's a good reason for this, you know. Not just an arbitrary decision of the higher-ups." Marc looked at Bill, who nodded.

"Now, from what I gather, Bill has given you hints about the reasons for this."

"Paranoid nonsense! Come on, Mr. Ambassador, where's the proof?"

Jennifer cut in. "There is proof, gentlemen. Only we are not at liberty to tell you."

One of the other scientists exploded. "Not at liberty! This is too much. Professor, either this is one big colossal bluff or the biggest cover-up job in the history of the system. Either way, I ask, no, I demand that we be told what is going on!"

The hissing of the pressure door interrupted them. "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but you are not in a position to demand anything."

They all turned to face the commander of Triton Center.

Bill stood up to forestall any argument. "Gentlemen, I think this meeting is over."

"See here," said one of the frustrated scientists, "you can't do this!"

"But I can, Doctor. By the way, everything that we have discussed here is to be treated as completely confidential. I am invoking the Official Secrets Act under the U.N. treaty."

"You can't do this. You don't have the authority!"

"I assure you I do."

"No, you can't shut us up by quoting some antiquated law no one's even used in fifty years. We won't stay quiet! The press is going to hear about this."

"If they do, Doctor, then you are going to be locked up. This meeting is over, gentlemen. Thank you."

The three scientists walked out, still defiant, even if a bit subdued.

As the door hissed closed, Bill let out a sigh. "That was close. Tactical error, Jerry. You shouldn't have opened your mouth."

"I know. Sorry."

"That's okay. The danger's passed. But you can be sure that there'll be some hot rumors floating around tonight."

"Yeah, well... It's just a matter of time before the cat's out of the bag anyway."

"Well, that's okay. We only need a few more days. Listen, you haven't met everyone, have you?" Bill made the introductions.

"How is everything, Commander?"

"Everything's fine, Ma’am. A little trouble but nothing we can't handle."

"I heard about Hua Sung," Bill said.

"That reminds me," Jerry said, "here's the rest of the intercepts. I gave Walter a copy."

"That was fast."

Jerry grinned. "When Kim Hua Sung heard about what happened to the cipher program, he got most of it recovered in nothing flat. A bright kid, actually, aside from his moments of clumsiness."

"No doubt with some emphatic encouragement from you." Bill laughed. He signed the intercepts by putting his thumb on the spine of the holographic “hardcopy” and gave it back.

Walter popped in again. "Your quarters are ready, ladies, Ambassador. Would you care to see them now?"

They walked out into the passageway, detouring to the right to avoid the tube terminals that were still overcrowded. It was still shift change. They got on the escalators and stepped out onto the main concourse. The visitors often asked things, acting like a group of tourists, even though Marc had visited the station once before.

As they reached the guest quarters, a soft chime echoed through the hallway and most of the people cleared the corridors.

"What's happening?" Sahsha asked.

"Standard operating procedure," Jerry said. "When a shuttle's coming in, all off-duty personnel should clear the aisles in case of an emergency, like the shuttle crashing into the base."

"There's no danger of that, is there?" asked Jennifer.

"Virtually none. Spacer pilots are careful," he said with a smile. “Most of the time.”

Bill looked at his chronometer. "That's probably the secretary-general. She's scheduled to arrive today. If you'll excuse me, my friends, I'll just go and meet her. Come on, Walter."

"Right."

"I better come along, too," said Sahsha. "That's my job."

They made their goodbyes and the three moved off to the shuttle bay. They heard the muted roar of the shuttle as the anti-gravs were cut off and the conventional landing rockets took over. Their tube car stopped with a pneumatic hiss and the docking arm's reception door opened. Secretary-General Alexandra Romarkin, the no-nonsense Russian-born politico, came out looking elegant and trim in her pastel-colored traveling clothes.

"Allie!"

"William! How good it is to see you."

They embraced. Sahsha stepped forward. "Madam Secretary-General," she said.

"Sahsha, how well you look. It has been a long time. How are you?" She turned and looked at Sahsha. She noticed Walter just behind Bill. "And who is this?"

"Allie, I'd like you to meet Walter Thorpe, my good friend and personal assistant. Walter, Madam Alexandra Romarkin, a very close family friend who just happens," he laughed, "to be the secretary-general of the New United Nations."

Walter bowed and took her hand. "I am very pleased to meet you, Madam Secretary."

Allie made a shushing motion. "Enough of that, Walter. We don't have to be that formal when we're among friends."

"Of course, Madam."

Allie laughed delightedly. "William, you have a most charming but very stuffy assistant." Walter reddened. Allie introduced them to her personal secretary and assistant and tried to ignore the half-dozen security people that tried to look inconspicuous in the narrow corridor.

Bill ushered everyone into the tube, the security people tagging along trying to be part of the wall.

"Listen," Bill said as they were getting under way, "I've set up the meeting for later tonight so that your people can have a chance to go through the rooms."

"Pardon me, sir," one of the uniformed guards spoke up, "How do we get there?"

"No problem," Walter answered for Bill. "We'll just detour the tube so that we can drop you off there."

He punched up new instructions into the controls. They felt the slight shift in direction as the car changed tubes. The security captain faced his second-in-command, a stiff-faced female lieutenant, and issued some hushed orders. When the car stopped, four of the guards stepped out. The car continued on to the guest quarters.

"Allie, how can you stand to have a platoon of soldiers around you all the time?"

"One can get used to anything, William. Actually, my chief of security is quite mad at me for this last-minute change in my itinerary since he didn't have time to prepare adequately. Now then, why did you drag me all the way here to Neptune? You said that it was very important. You could have gone to CETI Central instead of having me come here."

"Can't wait, huh?"

The secretary-general was almost tapping her heel in impatience. "Well?"

"All right. Partly security. Central is much too open to the public. And I couldn't afford having my transmission intercepted."

"And besides," said Walter, "all the hard data is here. We don't send everything back to Earth."

"You've been holding some of your findings back?" she asked, surprised.

"The council decided that we had to. You'll see why, later."

"Why wasn't I informed of this?"

"I know you take a dim view of holding secrets from the public..."

"You're damn right I do."

"So I persuaded Mr. Li, our old liaison officer, and Sahsha here to convince you to make this trip out to Neptune."

"There have been developments, Madam Secretary," said Walter.

"What kind of developments?"

"Lots of developments,” Bill replied, “most of them to do with our alien friends."

"So? What does that have to do with us? How does that affect us?"

"It will affect us, Ma’am,” Walter said. “The whole Human Race."

Bill raised his hand. "I think we'd better postpone this discussion for tonight, all right? So that everyone can be rested up." Allie looked at Bill with a raised eyebrow.

The tube's doors opened and they all stepped out near the guest quarters. They were met by Jerry, Marc and Jennifer, obviously waiting for them.

They chatted for a while but Allie excused herself because she wanted to rest up. The others decided the same thing as well and went to their own guest rooms. Before going into hers, Allie stopped Bill.

"Is it serious, William?"

"Yes, it is."

"All right." She let the doors slide closed.

Bill, Jerry and Walter turned and walked towards Master Control.

"Does she know?" Jerry asked.

"No, but I think she's getting the drift of it."

"What was it she asked you?"

"If it was really serious."

"Is it?"

"Yes, my friend. Very serious."

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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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