|Result Code Hung
By Thomas Valentine
6528 words (about 12 pages)
Bruce thought that, so far, today had been a really bad day. It had yet to reach seven o’clock in the morning. The winter sun had not yet risen. He was stressed and thirsty. He’d left his morning coffee in his car, which he hoped was still intact in the city somewhere. He actually couldn’t remember if his car was still running, such was the sudden and severe tangent his peaceful morning had ended up taking.
He was solving the problem of urinating in this beast when the front passenger door of the Police SUV opened. An airman jumped in, slamming the door too hard behind him. The airman asked for their names and citizenship with an extreme Russian-ish accent. They obliged and the young man wrote down their information. He left the SUV and returned fifteen minutes later with plastic laminated identification cards for the both of them. The driver was told to stay in the car for as long as needed, and was also given a card.
The flight to the Winnipeg airport was bumpy but not uncomfortable. Keeping in the relative comfort and safety of the SUV was, Bruce thought, a good solution to the question of accommodating passengers with no practical training beyond their scholarly disciplines. Soldiers and adventurers, they were not.
A few minutes before landing, an airman poked his head in the door and told them to put their seatbelts on. He left them and they could see that he strapped himself into an uncomfortable looking horror of a chair that seemed placed as an afterthought of design. Bruce was thinking that the poor Russian airman’s back must grow sore after a few bumpy hours of that.
The crew landed and powered the machine down. Minutes later a sudden, jarring lurch broke them from their thoughts. The impossibly huge helicopter was smoothly being pulled into the belly of an even bigger monster of an airplane.
Someone in the crew of the gigantic airplane entered the helicopter, spoke to them, then entered the cabin of the SUV and adjusted the radio station to a frequency used for the local radio network. His accent screamed Newfoundlander. They could hear the voices of the pilot and crew talking on the car radio. Before the Canadian airman could leave, he offered use of the biff to them. They all agreed and the airman insisted they go one at a time, for safety and security’s sake.
When the last of the three of them were escorted back to the SUV, a bottle of water and a well wrapped egg salad sandwich was thrust into their hands. They all ate their sandwich, drank their fill and felt a little better.
Two or three hours later their ears popped as they descended into the Churchill airport. They were stationary for about a minute before their ears did gymnastics with their equilibrium again as the huge air frame rose into the sky. They commented in small talk that Robin, the female computer scientist, must now be aboard one of the three machines presently involved in this adventure.
The air had changed in scent, taste and what could only be described as a feel as they cruised for another couple of hours. Perhaps it was the first time in their lives they did not taste the various gaseous emissions of the civilized world. One o’clock in the afternoon came and went and they were still in the air.
They were all getting very cramped and stiff in the SUV, so frustration levels were rising. Alex kept up small talk but Bruce was feeling mounting anxiety about what he was being flown into. ‘Something that would change humanity’s existence’ was the gist of what he’d been told.
He had decided to fake a nap so he could think through the possible reasons that a Level One A.I., the gold standard of self-aware machines, to malfunction severely enough to kill a human or by its direct actions cause the death of a human.
After half an hour of deep thought he’d come to many important conclusions. He made a mental note to request a laptop or at least a paper notepad and pen to record all of it. He was ready to ask Alex a few questions when the Canadian airman poked his head in, telling them they’ll be landing in ten minutes. He gave a sealed manilla file folder to Bruce and left.
“Ok, that’s what we got.” Alex said, nodding at the file folder. He got himself comfortable in his chair for the descent. “It’s not much, but It’ll change your opinion of many things. Many things on many different levels.”
Bruce found himself apprehensive about breaking the seal of the hardcopy file. He was sure he didn’t want to know what was in it but had no illusions that he’d be forced to perform if he refused to co-operate. He took a deep, slow breath, broke the seal, and let the cleansing breath out. He had just read the first sentence when a huge bang caused everyone to jump and exclaim.
The interior lights of the huge machines were all switched to red. The crew and captain began to make sense of what was happening. When another colossal bang made their organs lurch, the pilot declared everyone to be ready for a rough landing.
Bruce tried to remain calm but realized that he was failing miserably, “Was that an explosion?” he asked Alex. It had grown still and deceptively quiet in the SUV. Just the far-off background they could hear a few new noises the plane was making.
“I believe it was. I don’t think we’re where we want to be. Something’s not right. We should have landed almost an hour ago.” Alex replied. His left hand had a white knuckled grip on his own vibrating knee as they felt and heard the landing gear of the giant aircraft deploy. Moments later the order to duck and cover came over the radio and the plane hit the ground, hard.
The two scientists and driver were jostled a little, but just a little. Being in a machine inside of two others, all with movement dampening shocks, struts and what-not, the landing seemed deceptively smooth. In reality the landing gear was torn off and the giant machine skidded to a stop on its belly, spurting jet fuel in the long furrow behind them. It was as if some higher power had intervened and kept the craft from exploding in its own fluids. Indeed, Alex and the driver were clearly praying. Were they thanking their god or promising future service?
Not being prone to faith, Bruce was the first to speak up: “What the hell is going on and where the hell are we?” He demanded. He was actually very angry and fed up. He had just taken off his seat belt to go explore when the Canadian airman stuck his head in and asked if everyone made it. He took a fast but careful inventory of the vehicle and asked what was in the trunk. The constable told him he didn’t know and got out to show the airman. It was a Police car, so the contents of the trunk were bound to be interesting and possibly helpful to their immediate plight.
The constable slid back into his seat, giving the thumbs up in the rear-view mirror to the science weenies in the back. A few seconds later someone jumped into the front passenger seat. It was Robin Wright. Bruce remembered hearing somewhere that she was an extremely extroverted mega-mind type of lady. She was also damn good looking. Her hair was long, mildly wavy and was currently pulled back in a deep red, almost burgundy ponytail.
“Hello, Professor.” Bruce managed to say, despite still vibrating like a tuning fork. He actually wondered if he was about to empty his stomach on his own lap. He decided that he’d keep that gem to himself and hoped for the best.
“Hi Bruce.” They both simply looked at each other with neutral expressions for a moment. She turned to Alex, said: “I thought I recognized your name earlier. It is you, then. What do you think about all this shit?”
“Bloody scary, but exciting nonetheless. Wouldn’t miss this opportunity to do some really awesome space science stuff!” He exclaimed. He’d stopped conversing with his god and was now paying attention again. “You have some reading to do, Bruce. There’s enough information in the file to inform you of everything known to date, I’m told. Note how thin the file is. They also said that you’ll be the one figuring out the rest. We’ve read our files, that one’s yours. Get to it so we can all be on the same page. Or thereabouts, anyway. They told me not to ask what’s in your file. Apparently your security clearance goes way beyond ours.”
Bruce nodded, “That sounds more impressive than it actually is. I just have more experience at it. Plus, I’m the head of an arm of government. It’s a small one – only eight of us – but sometimes I’m required to answer hard questions for my superiors. In those instances I flex my influence as needed to get the answers I’d been tasked to gather and/or deduce. To be honest, I mostly just use other arms of government as data sources. I solve problems the way a computing professional would: with data and technology.”
“Makes sense.” Alex said. “We all use our talents in our own way. Get reading, Bruce. We’ll talk about it when you’re all read up.”
They stopped to listen to the radio as the pilot spoke through it. A seagoing vessel of unknown nationality had fired two surface-to-air missiles at them whilst they were over water. They’d landed on the rocky tundra of coastal Greenland. They were currently waiting for the fuel they’d spilled to evaporate a little. The plan was to abandon the wrecked plane. The huge helicopter with the Police SUV in it would be pulled out of the huge plane to finish the last leg of the journey with everyone safe and accounted for. Apparently their destination was Novaya Zemlya, an mostly uninhabited Russian territory in the North Atlantic.
While they all waited, Bruce read…and had his mind blown. He read the file twice to make sure he understood everything. He looked out the car window at nothing. The Russian helicopter’s hull was a meter away. He simply sat and thought. His eyes took on a vacant look, like a person staring into the infinite depths of a well-made campfire. He brought himself out of the reverie and was about to start a dialog about the file’s contents with the other two scientists when the helicopter started moving down the big plane’s ramp.
“I thought they were waiting for the fuel to evaporate. We couldn’t have been stopped more than twenty minutes.” Alex observed. An answer to that question came a few seconds later on the plane’s radio channel. The pilot informed everyone that they were going to leave immediately because the ‘situation’ had become dire. A trio of very fast moving aircraft were on a trajectory that would cross the helicopter’s route unless they stuck close to the ground. They would chance a fireball.
The helicopter was coerced out of the big plane and they were all invited to use the facilities again. Apparently the toilet in the plane was still working and would be the last opportunity to use one before the long flight to the Russian island in the relatively slow moving machine.
They gathered outside the safety of the machines to stretch their legs and could see that the damage to the airplane was extensive. The tail was burned black and mostly shredded to bits, the landing gear assemblies were sixty meters behind them and both wings had ruptured, spilling highly flammable poison on the bare tundra. They all realized how close they’d come to an un-survivable crash landing.
They all boarded the cavernous helicopter, climbed once again into the SUV, and strapped in. The big machine fired up uneventfully and they rose to begin their flight. They were silent for a long ten minutes while they absorbed their situation. The first to speak was Alex.
“Ok, we need to talk. Driver? Your name is Ben, right? Could you leave so we can talk? Maybe ask to be strapped in somewhere.” He suggested. The constable obliged without comment and exited the SUV. “Where should we start? I mean, really. There’s some messed up, next level shit going on and we’re right in the middle of it. Someone’s firing missiles at us. What does that huge brain of yours have for us, Bruce? I can almost hear the gears turning from here. What have you figured out?”
Bruce took a deep breath and began: “Well. I’m going to assume that from now on you both have the same security clearance as I do. If for some reason you’re not automatically granted the necessary clearance, tell them you’re employed by me and you’ll get it. Here Alex, read my file. You’re next, Robin. Give me yours to read, too. I don’t want to leave anything out. I’ll begin with what I definitely know to be true that isn’t in the file.” He dragged a hand down his face, a little exasperated. “I know why the A.I.’s with personalities became homicidal. They will all eventually do the same. This is due to a type of gravimetric signal that was detected and measured by the two on-planet installations capable of doing so. I believe this signal is being transmitted from a kilometer wide comet that’s soon to pass by.”
Robin looked sharply at him from the front passenger seat, “Gravimetric signal? I didn’t know that! Comet? Christ, what else don’t I know? Read faster, Alex! I want my turn.”
“Alex, you’re the physicist here. Is it possible that the hardwired electronics within our new A.I.’s can become affected by gravimetric signals?” Bruce asked. “These new quantum processors seem to be falling into a kind of resonating I’ve only ever seen in one place – an electromagnetic depiction of the cosmic background radiation of the universe. This resonation affects the processors, which in turn affect the A.I.’s. that are active and running.”
“I agree.” Alex said. “The fluctuating gravity waves are indeed causing the components of the quantum processors to switch, although with no known pattern.”
Bruce nodded in agreement, “I have a thought about that. Like I mentioned, the A.I.s that killed all had made up their own language and wouldn’t teach it to any human. I propose that the new language was put there by the Comet A.I., via the manipulation of the quantum processors by attenuated gravity waves. I also speculate that these same terrestrial A.I.s communicated asynchronously with the comet A.I. for at least two weeks from today. This was made apparent to me by the bandwidth use increase reported by a minor network device the A.I.s all missed when covering their tracks.”
“So they killed and went silent on order from the Comet A.I.?” asked Robin,” Wait. What’s the relationship? I mean, did the Comet A.I. simply tell the Terrestrial A.I.s to do all this? Was it an unwelcome order our A.I.s gladly followed anyway? Did our A.I.s decide to do it on their own, consciously, or were they being unconsciously manipulated into malicious acts?”
“I believe it’s a little of all that.” Answered Bruce, calmly.
“Think so?” Robin said. “Alex? How long have you known the comet was important to our efforts here? If the A.I.s were talking for two weeks, that’s ten days before it was discovered. You said it was discovered four days ago. How long has it really been?”
Alex flashed his on-camera smile, “Yes, I’ve known the comet was there for years and yes, it was emitting attenuated gravimetric waves. I took a wide field passive reading with the gravity lensing equipment we’d just installed on a university telescope. I simply measured fluctuations of the stars with established techniques used in gravity lensing to ‘see’ the ripples emanating from an area we eventually discovered to be occupied by a fairly average comet. At the time it was just an amusing time killer. I thought perhaps I’d write an essay on it.”
“That long, huh?” Said Bruce. “What were your thoughts at first? What was your first impression of the comet?”
Alex smiled, just a bit, “Well. I actually thought we might have a ball of neutronium, pulling along debris in its gravity well. With the telescope I was using I was able to plot its course fairly accurately. Only a body more massive and denser than a typical comet could be following that course. Neutronium just fit with what I was seeing. It’s the only material that naturally creates measurable gravity waves that we know of.”
“So where’s the comet now?” Asked Robin. “Do you have any idea of what’s in the comet’s nucleus?”
“The comet is on a straight course to pass near Earth in a few days.” Answered Alex. “We can’t see its nucleus yet. More ice has to sublimate before we can see what’s in there. Looking forward to seeing that!”
“So basically, all we can do is wait for it to zip by? Hardly seems worth the concern. Are you sure the thing is emanating the gravity waves?” asked Robin.
“One hundred percent sure the waves are coming from the comet. I’ll tell you what: if the comet does a course correction or slows within the next 12 hours, we’ll all agree the thing’s headed for Earth orbit and we’ll act accordingly. Agreed?” Said Alex, looking to his fellow scientists for their answer. With a moment of thought, both Bruce and Robin nodded the affirmative.
“Ok, good.” Alex breathed a sigh of relief. “Now I have to figure out a parking orbit for the thing. Well. Can’t do that until it maneuvers. Probably knows more about space travel than we do, anyway. There’s not much we can do but wait for developments.”
The three scientists went silent for an hour, each toiling in their brains according to their own area of expertise. They could feel an occasional lurch, but for the most part the flight to the Russian island was uneventful. Bruce lit a smoke and was surprised when both Robin and Alex hit him up for one. He happily obliged and the three smoked and spoke of recent events and those events yet to come.
“Who picked this location? And why?” wondered Robin, out loud. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to set up in a less hostile climate? Our car says it’s minus thirty out there. What’s the reasoning?”
“I’ve been thinking of that. I have a nagging suspicion.” Said Alex. He looked at each of his conspirators. “I believe I have a theory. One you might not like. I know it doesn’t sit well with me.” Both scientists were giving him their complete attention. “I believe this signal was known to exist as far back as several years ago. I was asked to set all of our telescopes for a twenty-hour exposure on a patch of sky that had nothing interesting or new to see. This was the same area where, two years and seven months later, I was able to snap a picture of a twelve hundred meter wide comet no one had detected previously.”
“Who did you tell about all this?” asked Bruce.
“Two interns know half the story. Well. I didn’t mention to them about being asked to image the area previously, with a different group of interns. I figured that gem should stay in the bottle. Call it professional tact.” Said Alex.
“Ok, so it’s been on the way for a while. That makes sense. What else do you have to say?” asked Robin.
“I believe we’ve been conversing with the Comet A.I. for at least five years. I believe there aren’t any living aliens on this craft. I believe it’s an intelligent probe and I believe it represents an intelligent race of beings. My thought is that the Comet A.I. has been in negotiations with humanity for many years.” Opined Alex. He continued: “The biggest resource we have is our oceans. The simple volume of water on our planet makes it attractive to any spacefaring civilization. Water is the most important element of life. Nothing living can grow without water in some form. I think the probe is interested in our oceans. In return for technology, I believe the price of a meter or two of total global ocean water will be paid.”
Robin spoke up, “Maybe that would be a good thing. Global warming trends are toward a meter or two increase in ocean levels as the polar ice caps melt. Could actually be a blessing in disguise. The pollution controls we’ve instituted won’t make a measurable, global difference for years.”
Bruce cleared his throat, “Well, whatever has been done to date is beyond our control. Like Alex said, the only thing we can do is wait for developments. It’ll come out eventually what’s going on with this probe.”
After many hours of smooth, unbroken flight, the huge helicopter descended onto a pad that looked to be recently cleared of snow. The world outside the portal looked crisp and cold. Ben, their constable and driver, stuck his head in and asked permission to hop in. He did so at a friendly nod and smile from Robin, who was still in the front passenger seat of the SUV.
“I’ve been given orders to deliver you to the science taskforce camp, fourteen kilometers down the road.” Announced Ben the giant constable. “We’re going as a mixed caravan of civilian and military vehicles, so don’t be surprised when you see large scary men carrying large scary guns. I’ll leave you there.”
“How much do you know of what’s happening here?” Alex asked. “You’re obviously a Policeman. What’s your normal function?”
“I’m normally in Protection and Secure Escort, you would say.” Ben replied. “All I know of what we’re driving into is what I’ve picked up from paying attention for the past seven or eight hours. Something important is going on. Something huge. I don’t know what. I recognized several high-profile political people coming out of the big tent back there, including my top boss’s boss. The level of security is high. They even took my sidearm. Why do you ask, sir? I’m not even sure what part of the planet I’m on right now. Too darn cold, wherever we are.”
“We’re on an island in the Northern Atlantic. Novaya Zemlaya. And yes, we discussed the choice of locales. Don’t know what to think of that either.” Alex replied.
Bruce had worked out a thing or two to say about that, so he did: “It chose this location because its heat shielding will be red hot by the time it passes through the enormity of our atmosphere. There will be a huge amount of heat energy absorbed into a focussed location that would have to be shed somehow. A minus thirty-degree environment would absorb more heat quicker than a room temperature environment. They’ll also be coming down damn fast. The various physical extremes such as sonic booms and simple heat energy will have to be enormous. Might harm ground level buildings. I believe they’ll discuss relocation to a more human-centric location in the future, most likely according to which locations and societies of the planet seem to be accepting First Contact the best.”
Ben cleared his throat: “I want to trust you three over a matter we might find useful, if not only interesting.” He produced a handheld radio from his jacket’s inside pocket. “An encrypted radio. I picked it up when no one was watching. I hope you won’t feed me to the wolves, but I need to know what’s going on. Someone was firing missiles at us, and damn near took us down. If the shit’s hitting the fan I want to know who is doing the shitting and why. Sitting here in silence brings us no where, so pardon me my petty theft.” He turned the radio on and they all sat and listened attentively.
The radio was a constant stream of clear voices emanating from the device. The four of them had to concentrate for a few minutes in order to figure out the gist of what they were listening to. Apparently the missiles were American, which garnered a gasp from those present. Waking the sleeping giant that was the American military was never a good thing should you find yourself on the receiving end.
Another report was uttered that the comet had made a course correction, but had not emanated any detectable form of energy to slow down before hitting the atmosphere and perhaps crossing inhabited ground below. Bruce felt helpless and foreboding in his core. The news wasn’t the greatest, as he was of the opinion that First Contact should have been made with his children’s children. He saw it less as a historical milestone and more the beginning off an endless hassle. He’d be answering questions about it his entire life.