July 21, 2010

Greetings to Earth

From 1989 when the shuttle program was fairly new, and NASA did indeed say you could ride on the shuttle if you had an experiment that only you could oversee... As a side note, the Klodfons have shown up several times as an ambiguous, undescribed "bad guy" for my space stories. No, I don't know what they are, they've never been defined, even in my own mind. I do like the name, though, it sounds like something big, mean, and slightly stupid. --Anne
Chapter One
"Mr. Lawrence will see you now," the secretary said. The young woman looked up from the magazine she'd been reading. "Thank you." She laid it down and picked up a large manila folder from the chair next to her. She'd had great difficulty preparing enough information to catch the interest of each interviewer, without revealing too much. She hoped it would be enough for the director. Brushing her dark curls back over her shoulder, she took a deep breath and entered his office for her final interview. The man behind the desk was slim and in a physical shape that belied the years of care revealed by his lined face and silvered hair. He looked very forbidding. He stood and extended his hand. "Miss Adamson." His voice was smooth and pleasantly pitched, and he carried the attitude of a bored executive who is merely being polite for the sake of courtesy. They shook hands and he gestured at the 'hot seat' chair opposite his own. "Please, sit down." He seated himself, and she followed suit, perching on the edge of her chair, her posture perfect. The director smiled, a thin smile which failed to reach the faded blue of his eyes. "Now then... like practically everyone else in the country, you want a space shuttle ride. You heard the news men say that "all you have to do is find an experiment that you personally have to supervise." Furthermore, like about two percent of this country, you don't care how much work is involved, as long as it's free. You have come up with an idea. This idea has carried you all the way to my office. Let me tell you right now, that I have been listening to these homegrown ideas for several years now. Several of the experiments have been accepted, and successfully carried out*by our regular crew*however, none of the applicants have proven to me that it's necessary for them to go. So... what's your project, and why do you, personally, need to oversee it?" Marnie smiled, and wet her lips nervously. It was absolutely vital to get him to agree to this proposal. She took a deep breath and was pleased to find that her voice was steady as she began. "The experiment is to contact intelligent life not from this planet. I believe that if the message is transmitted from orbit next December, there will be a response." "Why from orbit?" He sounded a tiny bit interested now, and a glimmer of hope burst into life in Marnie's heart. Her voice became more confident. "My equipment sends computer data in a radio signal carried on a beam of light. The message must be sent from orbit because of atmospheric distortion of light. The focus of the light must be extremely precise. The reason that I must personally be there is that I'm the only one who knows how to repair my equipment -- it's rather temperamental. Also, there needs to be constant surveillance on the receiver, and that would take up too much of the crew's time." Victor Lawrence listened patiently. "Supposing that I let you go, what message do you intend to send to these... intelligent beings?" "Just a basic message to drop in and see us sometime. Nothing more than what's already been sent, really, but I believe that the time and manner of sending will be more likely to get their attention." "Explain." Marnie took another deep breath, and clasped her hands in her lap. This was the touchiest part of the whole operation. "I'm sure that the observatories have made you aware of the shadow, apparently with no source, which has been appearing on the moon at regular intervals." He nodded and Marnie continued. "With all natural and man-made phenomena ruled out, the only possible source for that shadow is people from somewhere else. The shadow is due back in December. You have a planned launch on the fourth, returning on the twelfth. That should provide adequate time to transmit and receive a response." She handed him her folder. "Here's the data from my research." The Director read through the contents of the folder, asking several other questions concerning the theory, reasoning, and items of equipment. Marnie gave her answers quietly but with confidence and grace, despite her nervous tension. Finally, Mr. Lawrence's face softened into its customary lines, and he smiled at her from across the desk. "You've just won yourself a shuttle ride, Miss Adamson. Further, if you're to be ready to go in December, you'll need to be training full time, and begin tomorrow. See my secretary on the way out for the packet of information you'll need to get started, and take the rest of the day to settle your affairs. Getting all your training in will take so much time that your friends are going to think you've dropped off the face of the earth." Marnie smiled warmly. "That's the basic idea, isn't it?." The director laughed his agreement as he ushered her out of his office.
Chapter Two
John climbed from the NASA van and turned to help Marnie, who took his hand and scrambled after him. The crew paused a moment at the foot of the tower before boarding the elevator. The orbiter looked huge, but from long hours in the simulator, Marnie knew the living and working areas were quite compact. They got in the elevator and started up the tower. Nine days in space! Marnie was excited. This morning, seven people were leaving the planet for nine days! No artificial gravity, true, not to mention no room and no windows…well, as small as they were, there might as well be no windows, but it would still be very nice to be in space again. The elevator stopped, and the crew walked into the ship and began strapping in for take-off. John teased Marnie as she climbed on her chair and twisted into a nearly impossible position to check her equipment before strapping herself in. The launch went off beautifully, the G-forces pressing Marnie into her chair. Despite her recent training, the duration of the strong gravity surprised her. Enduring three times the surface gravity, she fought for her breath, sure that she could endure no more. She was filled with admiration for the men and women who regularly launched and endured this in order to leave their planet so briefly. Every ship she'd been on had artificial gravity, which had never varied from the standard setting, about three-fourths of Earth's surface gravity. Seated in the rear of the orbiter, she had no idea how far they'd come, but suddenly, and simultaneously, the vibrations from the engines and the gravity both quit. Marnie glanced at her watch. Almost eight minutes from launch to orbit. "Not bad," she mused. John's voice came over the headset. "We're here. Everyone OK?" She acknowledged that she was fine. John was a good leader for their group, as well as having become a good friend during the training they'd shared. Nearly a half-hour later, after a final, short, engine burn, John announced that they were now established in orbit, and it was now all right to un-strap. Marnie loosened her buckles, moved carefully out of her seat, and re-fastened the buckles around the empty seat so they wouldn't float into someone's head. She found that she was able to maneuver easily despite not having been weightless for several years. Joining the null-grav ball team was really paying off now. Marnie looked around the cabin. People were now floating in all directions and at all angles. The other mission specialists who hadn't been in orbit before were comical. Janet had pushed off from her chair too hard, ending up on the other side of the cabin. She was now working herself back to her chair hand-over-hand style. Mike, on the other hand, had somehow floated to the center of the cabin, turning sideways. He was now flailing frantically to retrieve himself via a hand-hold, all of which were just out of reach. The flight crew had not yet emerged from the cockpit, so Marnie moved to his seat and reached up. Bracing herself with the chair, she pulled him back and helped him stow the seat belts. They moved together toward the front of the shuttle to look outside. The view was beautiful, even if the windows were small. They couldn't see the entire Earth because they were still too close, but they could see a large part of it. There was much commenting on the roundness and beauty of the planet below. The clouds made pretty patterns against the continents and seas. Marnie smiled. The people below, for the most part, never dreamed of having such a beautiful view. How disconcerted many of them would be at the thought of someone watching them from "outer space." Since her experiment was not scheduled to begin until afternoon, Marnie spent most of her morning star-gazing. It was wonderful to be in space again, though she did wish for artificial gravity. If she was unsuccessful in making contact, perhaps she could "invent" it, and that might win her another trip to test it. She could qualify to become an astronaut easily enough, but she'd never pass the background check...she had no background, on this planet. They ate their lunch, a delicious meal once it had been re-constituted and heated, and washed it down with water they drank from pouches equipped with straws. Marnie recalled some of the holiday banquets she'd eaten ship-board, and reflected anew on the virtues of induced gravitation. She promised herself that she'd never take it for granted again. As they finished the meal John smiled at her from across the cabin. "Mind if I watch while you set up your equipment?" "Not at all." Marnie quickly moved to her work station on the flight deck. She pulled out a large box and opened it to reveal a great deal of protective padding. First out of the box was a small folding table with Velcro on the feet. She set it up and secured it to the pads that had been installed on the decking weeks before the launch. Next out was a quite ordinary looking lap-top computer and a larger box, which contained several additional memory components. She set them on the table, securing them with additional Velcro tabs. Deftly, she removed some cables from the box, clipping them to both parts of the computer before connecting the computer to a power outlet in the orbiter's wall. John watched her economical movements as she set up her project. He was amazed at how quickly she had adjusted to the micro-gravity, and how well she handled herself, and said so. Marnie smiled, reflecting on her null-grav gymnastics classes. It had taken her a long time to get over space-sickness, and even longer to pass the basic aerobatics class*which was required before being approved for space flight. She'd eventually joined the ball team for more practice at weightless maneuvering. "Just naturally graceful, I guess." was her only reply to John, however. "Think you'll find intelligent life?" "I certainly hope so." 'At least,' she added to herself, 'I hope they're not too intelligent to answer. I know they're out there.' John grinned, not being privy to those last thoughts. "Well, at least you'll have had a ride on the shuttle." Marnie ignored the comment and continued setting up, by removing from the box a light gun which reminded John of an automobile timing light. Moving to the window, Marnie slid it into the mounting which she'd spent hours perfecting before it's pre-launch installation. It was well worth all the effort, the gun fit perfectly, and she tightened the screws that would hold it securely in place. She attached what looked like a miniature satellite dish, only five inches across, next to the gun, and attached them both to the computer with long cables which were then clipped to the floor for safety. The dish and gun covered about half of the pilot's window, but both would be removed and stowed before re-entry. Finished with her preparations, Marnie powered up the computer and inserted the disk she'd spent many hours perfecting. In minutes, the light gun began to pulse, and she settled back in her chair. "Now all that's left is the waiting." John excused himself to see to other business, leaving Marnie to keep her lonely vigil.
Chapter Three
A soft beeping woke John. In the silence of space, the computers always made some background noise, however, he'd never heard them beep like this before. Quickly he crawled out of his sleeping bag and propelled himself forward to the flight deck. As his head poked through the hatch, he saw that Marnie hadn't moved from where he'd left her hours before. Although he'd checked with her from time to time, and brought her meals, she'd not moved from in front of her computer in the last seven days. Tomorrow she would pack up her equipment and call the experiment a failure...which is pretty much what he'd expected would happen all along. Moving a bit closer, he saw that there was a red dot on her computer screen flashing in time with the insipid beeping. Gliding the rest of the way through the door, he realized that she must be asleep. He reached out and touched her arm, calling her name softly. "Marnie." She started awake, the movement causing her to drift from her chair. Nearly immediately her motion reversed, and she returned to the chair, sitting solidly. "How did you do that?" John motioned to the chair. "And I woke you because your computer insisted." Marnie grinned sleepily. "I have one foot curled around the chair base. Works wonders." She turned to the computer and gasped, all traced of sleep disappearing from her face and voice in a rush of adrenaline. "They're answering!" John noted the excited flush to her cheeks, the extra sparkle in her eyes, and the fact that her hands were trembling. She had the same expectant air of a young child on Christmas morning, he thought. He moved closer, coming to "stand" behind her, looking over his shoulder, his hands lightly clasping the back of the chair. He felt a stir of excitement within himself at the thought of maybe communicating with other people. He'd never before allowed himself a belief in their existence. "Can you tell what they're saying?" Marnie nodded as she pressed several keys on the computer. "If they're using the same computer language I was sending in." The dot disappeared, the beeping stopped, and words appeared on the screen. "GREETINGS…WE ARE THE DORAL…WHO ARE YOU…GREETINGS." "Tell them who we are." John's voice was firm, but held his own suppressed excitement. "GREETINGS FROM EARTH…WE ARE UNITED STATES SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA…COMMANDER "JOHN"…IDENTIFY SELF…GREETINGS." She pressed another button and the light gin began flickering again. "Why did you ask them to identify themselves? They said they are the Doral. And why did you only use my first name?" Marnie smiled without looking up. "'The Doral' refers to their place of origin…The Doralian Empire…not their individual names...and they only use their rank and one name. It's terribly rude to tell strangers your family name." "How do you know that?" Marnie stood and turned to look straight at John, he expression unreadable. "I'm one of them." "What?" Shock lightened his tanned face, his eyes widening with incredulity. His fingers convulsively tightened his hold on the chair back to steady himself, and he shook his head to clear it. Marnie smiled up at him. "I am from the Doralian Empire. My ship was shot up near here about ten years ago, and I have been stuck on Earth ever since. All I'm trying to do is hitch a ride home." Turning her attention back to the computer, she seated herself again, fingers hovering over the keys. The red dot began to blink again, then became words once more. "WE ARE SHIP ESQUIRE…COMMANDER "ESTORIL"…EARTH-NATIVES TOO PRIMITIVE FOR LIGHT-COMM…YOU ARE KLODFONS…PREPARE TO DIE." Marnie's fingers hit the keyboard before John had even finished reading the message. "DO NOT DESTROY…WE ARE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA FROM EARTH…NOT ALL ON BOARD EARTH-NATIVES…SELF DELTOID FROM EMPIRE…REQUEST PASSAGE HOME…REPEAT…DO NOT DESTROY." Marnie looked out the front window and pointed out a moving light to John. "That's their ship." He studied the heavens as the computer beeped again, still trying to assimilate the knowledge she had given him. The answer came back more quickly this time. "DELTOID GIVE SELF NAME." Marnie smiled again. She thought that last message would throw Commander Estoril off balance. Deltoids very rarely left their home world. "SELF NAME PRINCESS-AMBASSADOR "MARNIE"…REQUEST TRANSPORT…EARTH VESSEL MUST RETURN THEIR PLANET SOON…QUESTIONS?" An immediate response. "NO QUESTIONS. STATE INSTRUCTIONS." Marnie glanced up at John. Although still not quite believing what he was seeing, he was obviously again in control of himself. "What can I do to help you get home, Princess-Ambassador?" Marnie grinned widely. "One of their small shuttles should fit in the cargo bay, though they won't be able to dock with you. I'll need to borrow a suit to get from one air-lock to the other." John shook his head. "I can't let you take a suit, we'd only have one left on board. What I can do is suit up myself, and put you in one of the PRE's. Then I'll haul you over to the other air-lock." The Personal Rescue Enclosure, a ball-shaped bag barely 34 inches across, was not the most comfortable way to travel, but it would work. Marnie nodded and typed the next message. "LAUNCH SMALL SHUTTLE…GUIDE IT INTO CARGO BAY…CAUTION…NO GRAVITY IN OPERATION THIS SHIP." By now the alien ship was so near that it's radiance filled the windows. The ship itself could not be seen for the light. A modest portion of that light split off from the main body and maneuvered slowly until it came to rest in the cargo bay. John was waiting in the air-lock, already halfway into his space suit. Marnie's face was radiant as she closed the air-lock door. "They're very suspicious, and won't want you to leave the air-lock. In fact, it would be better if you don't even crack your helmet. Just release me from the PRE and go." "Why all the suspicion? We haven't done anything to them." "No, but we…the Empire…are at war with the Klodfons, and Commander Estoril is probably half convinced that this is all a trick." Marnie waited until John was completely in his suit before crawling into the PRE. Curling herself around the oxygen tank, she waited while John zipped her in. She hated small places, and was glad that NASA had built a small window into the sphere. John was right not to let her take one of the suits, though. He was going to have enough trouble explaining to the authorities why he returned without one of his crew, he didn't need the additional headache of missing equipment. De-pressurizing the air-lock seemed to take forever, but once it was complete, John opened the far door, securing it behind him, and walked toward the bright object resting in the cargo bay. It was difficult to maneuver while hauling Marnie behind him, though she weighed nothing, her mass still had momentum, and kept swinging around. Inside, Marnie prayed that she would not disgrace herself. The light turned out to be a very small space-ship. The outer door was standing open. As John stepped into the air-lock, he fell to his knees and almost dropped Marnie. This small ship had gravity! The door slid shut behind him and air began to enter the chamber. In a very few minutes, the inner door opened, revealing a man holding what appeared to be a gun of some sort. The helmet he were prevented John from seeing his face. Moving slowly, and keeping his hands in view at all times, John unzipped the PRE, and Marnie stood up as she removed the oxygen mask. She tucked the mask into the ball, and re-zipped it, then handed it to John. Marnie stepped into the ship, where another person…wearing a similar helmet, pointed some sort of equipment at her. The air-lock door shut, and John heard the pumps as they began their work. Shortly the outer door opened, and John quickly exited the alien ship, heading for his own air-lock. As soon as he had latched the door shut behind him, the other ship moved out of the cargo bay, returning to the larger ship, still concealed in its blaze of light. John removed his space suit, and glided forward to the command deck to shut off Marnie's computer. As his hand reached for the switch, the computer beeped again and another message appeared. "GREETINGS…GOODBYE COLUMBIA…THANKS FOR THE RIDE…PRESS F7 TO SAVE THIS CONVERSATION TO DISK SO NASA WILL BELIEVE YOU…PERHAPS WE'LL RETURN LATER, WHEN YOU'VE GROWN UP SOME MORE…HATE TO EAT AND RUN …MARNIE." John sighed and pressed the F7 key. Now that his shock was further abating, he was suddenly full of questions, and no-one there could answer them. As he carefully began to disassemble Marnie's equipment for the flight home, he wondered what a Klodfon was.