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Igms issue 4, p.1

IGMS Issue 4, page 1


IGMS Issue 4

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IGMS Issue 4

  Issue 4 - February 2007

  Copyright © 2007 Hatrack River Enterprises

  Table of Contents - Issue 4 - February 2007

  * * *

  Tabloid Reporter To The Stars

  by Eric James Stone


  by Ada Brown

  Call Me Mr. Positive

  by Tom Barlow

  Beats of Seven

  by Peter Orullian

  Approaching Zero

  by Kelly Parks


  by Peter Friend

  Moon-Eyed Stud

  by Justin Stanchfield

  A Young Man with Prospects

  by Orson Scott Card

  Just Like Me

  by David Lubar

  Big Otto's Casino

  by David Lubar

  Tabloid Reporter to the Stars

  by Eric James Stone

  Artwork by Tomislav Tikulin

  * * *

  When I was fired after ten years as a science reporter for the New York Times, the editor told me I'd never get a job with a decent paper again. He was right, at first: no one wanted to hire a reporter who had taken bribes to write a series of articles about a non-existent technology in order to inflate the value of a company being used in a stock swindle -- even if I had managed to get off without serving time.

  And that's the only reason I took the job with the Midnight Observer tabloid. They didn't care that I'd made up a news story -- they were impressed that I'd managed to write something that had fooled experts for over a year. So began my new career under the pseudonym of Dr. Lance Jorgensen. The doctorate was phony, of course, and I never did decide what it was in. I worked that gig for three years before I caught the break that let me get back into real journalism.

  When the United Nations Space Agency decided to hold a lottery to choose a reporter to travel on board the first interstellar ship, they set strict qualifications: a college degree in journalism, at least five years of experience as a science reporter, and current employment with a periodical or news show with circulation or viewership of at least one million.

  Technically, I qualified. So I entered. And a random number generator on an UNSA computer picked my number.

  Less than five minutes after UNSA announced the crew of the Starfarer I, including yours truly as the only journalist, the calls began. The first was from my old editor at the Times. He wanted me back on an exclusive basis -- I could name my own price. I'll admit I was bitter: I told him my price was full ownership of the paper, and that I'd fire him as soon as I had it. He sputtered; I hung up.

  By the end of that week, I had a TV deal with CNN and a print/web deal with the Washington Post. And so, without a gram of regret, Dr. Lance Jorgensen gave the Midnight Observer his two weeks' notice. I was once again Lawrence Jensen, science reporter.

  A lot of journalists squawked that I didn't deserve to be on the mission because of my scrape with the law, even if I had managed to avoid a conviction by turning state's evidence. But the rules were on my side for a change: my degree from the Columbia School of Journalism, my experience at the Times, and the Midnight Observer's seven-million-plus circulation fit the letter, if not the spirit, of the rules. Despite their fervent wishes, I made it through spaceflight training without a hitch, and proudly boarded the Starfarer as the world looked on.

  This mission was my chance for redemption. I'd made one big mistake, and I planned to make up for it with accurate, well-written science reporting that made the wonders of space travel understandable to everyone. I had loved science since I was a kid; if I'd had the brains to do the math I might have chosen a career as a scientist instead of a reporter. Reporting this mission was my dream job, and I was determined not to mess things up.

  The day we launched, the Midnight Observer ran a cover story claiming that I had been selected for this mission because while working undercover for them I had already met the aliens the Starfarer would encounter, and they had requested that I serve as Earth's ambassador. They had even 'shopped a picture of me shaking hands with a stereotypical short, gray, bald, bulge-headed alien.

  During all two hundred and twenty-three days of hyperspace travel, my crewmates refused to let me live that down.

  Fortunately, when we found the aliens, they didn't look anything like that picture.

  The theory behind hyperspace travel involves several dimensions beyond the usual four we humans can perceive. The mathematical formulas involved in actually making a hyperspace drive work surpass the understanding of the unenhanced human brain. But what the formulas and the theory don't mention is that traveling by hyperspace is beautiful. The harsh radiation that fills the hyperspacial void becomes a kaleidoscope of infinite variety as it washes upon our magnetic shields.

  Observations from Hubble III had indicated the possibility of a planet with an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere in this system, and now that we had arrived, our on-board telescopes had confirmed that the fourth planet had such an atmosphere. I had just finished my third column for this week's homelink, explaining about non-equilibrium gasses and why this meant there was life of some sort on the planet, when Singh began pounding on my cabin door.

  "Hey, Ambassador, you in there?"

  I didn't dignify that by responding.

  "Come on, Jensen, open up. I've got a scoop for you."

  Narinder Singh was one of Starfarer's xenobiologists, and until we actually got down on the ground, he didn't have much to do except make guesses based on the limited data our telescopes could gather. So it was unlikely that he had anything important. Besides, since I was the only reporter on board, there wasn't anyone who could scoop me. But I said, "Come in," anyway.

  He opened the hatch and came in. "Look at these." He shoved a handful of eight-by-ten photos in front of my face.

  I took the photos and began leafing through them. They showed a thin sunlit crescent of planet, which I assumed to be Aurora, the planet with the good atmosphere. "So, it's nighttime on half the planet. Excuse me while I call my editor and tell him to stop the presses."

  "No, look closer at the nighttime side. Over here." He pointed to a region along the equator near the edge of the darkness.

  Peering at the photo, I noticed that there were a dozen or so little clumps of bright spots. "You think these are the lights of cities?"

  "Yes. There's a civilization on that planet. And I want you to remember I came to you with this discovery first."

  I looked over at the column I had just finished. I could rewrite a bit to mention Singh's speculations, with plenty of caveats. But it still seemed a little too flimsy -- and the whole situation with the Midnight Observer story made me leery of anything involving aliens. "Yeah, I'll remember, if it turns out to be anything. It's probably volcanoes or forest fires or something. Did you run this by Khadil?" Iqrit Khadil was our geologist. "I mean, if it's really a civilization down there, how come there's no radio traffic?"

  "Maybe they haven't developed radio yet. Or maybe they've moved beyond it. But I'm telling you, this is it: a sentient species with at least rudimentary civilization."

  "Look, if you can get Khadil to agree that those are not volcanoes or any other geological phenomenon within the next half hour, I'll put your speculations in today's column. Otherwise, you'll have to wait till next week, which might be better, anyway, since by then there might be more evidence one way or the other."

  He grabbed the photos back. "I know what I know. I'll talk to Khadil."

  Now that the Starfarer is out of hyperspace, normal radio transmissions would take over one hundred and thirty years to travel to Earth, making direct two-way communication impossible. So the Starfarer's designers came up with a solution. When we arrived in this
solar system, our ship split into two modules. The Hyperspace Module (HM) and two members of the crew remain in the outer system, where they can make the jump to hyperspace, while the Orbital Module (OM) heads in toward the planets with the rest of the crew. We send all our data -- including this column -- to the HM.

  It takes six days for the nuclear reactor on the HM to store enough power in the capacitors for the jump to hyperspace. So once a week, they make the jump and send a radio signal to a ship in hyperspace near Earth. Instead of one hundred and thirty years, the signal only takes eighteen hours to travel to Earth. The receiving ship then returns to normal space and transmits the data to UNSA headquarters on Earth, which sends my columns to the Washington Post, who deliver it to your doorstep.

  By the time the OM reached planetary orbit five days later, all the evidence pointed to a developing civilization on Aurora, so I decided it was a good thing I'd included Singh's speculations in my column. We didn't know what the reaction from Earth was yet -- the HM was still charging its capacitors for its weekly jump into hyperspace to transmit our reports and download communications from home. But first contact with an alien species, which had always been considered only a slight possibility, transformed our mission from one of simple exploration into something far greater. I'd already written and rewritten and disregarded several columns about the meaning of all this. It was probably the biggest news story ever; I was writing history, and I wanted to get the words right.

  I wasn't the only one. Commander Inez Gutierrez de la Peña, who was in overall command of our mission, commed me in my quarters in the middle of the night. The next morning most of the crew would be taking the Landing Module down to an isolated island in the middle of Aurora's larger ocean, and she would take the first human step on a planet outside our solar system. She wanted my opinion on what she would say upon taking that step.

  I was flattered, but feigned irritation out of habit. "It's two in the morning. How'd you know I wasn't sleeping?"

  "I checked the power consumption in your quarters and could tell the lights and your computer were on." UNSA hadn't picked Gutierrez by lottery; she knew this ship six ways from zero.

  "OK. Tell me what you've got so far."

  She hesitated a moment. "It's no 'One small step,' but . . . 'Humanity has always been a race of explorers. Though in the past we have not always lived up to our aspirations, letting fear and exploitation rule our encounters with the unknown, today on this new world we have a chance --"

  "Blah blah blah. Are you looking to write a pamphlet on social responsibility or do you want to say something that will still be quoted a thousand years from now?"

  "I was thinking that putting the event in its historical context --"

  "Leave that to the historians and people like me. What you need is a sound bite. Short. To the point, yet something that recalls the dreams of our first ancestors who looked up at the stars and wondered what lay beyond them."

  On my com screen, her face nodded. "I see what you mean. You going to be up a while longer?"

  "Yeah. Call me when you come up with something."

  I may not have sounded very respectful, but Commander Gutierrez had my respect. Not only was she almost irritatingly competent at her job, but out of the thirty-seven other members of the crew, she was the only one who had never called me "Ambassador."

  It took her six more tries over the next three hours before I thought she had it about right.

  The next morning, precisely on schedule, she climbed down the ladder outside the LM's airlock. We could hear her steady breathing over her spacesuit's com system. When she reached the bottom and took that first step onto Aurora's soil, her voice came in loud and clear.

  "Today humanity walks among the stars. Where will we walk tomorrow?"

  As those of us on board the LM clapped and cheered, I felt twin twinges of pride and jealousy. Every word I had ever written would be long forgotten, and still those words would be remembered. They were not mine, but at least I had helped shape them.

  I took my little shares of immortality wherever I could.

  Like the generation who as children saw the Wright Brothers fly and as adults saw man walk on the moon, or those who watched the latter as children and lived to see the first colony on Mars, we are witnesses to the dawn of a new age of humanity. Who knows how far we will go, following the footsteps of Commander Gutierrez?

  Our landing spot's isolation allowed the biologists to analyze the native life with the least risk of contaminating the planetary biosphere. Seven days after landing, I got a chance to take a five-minute walk around the island. Aurora's light gravity -- seventy-eight percent of Earth's -- gave a spring to my step despite the weight of the spacesuit.

  I daydreamed of spotting something significant during my walk, a scientific discovery of my own that I could reveal to a waiting world, but in the end all that I had discovered for myself was the sensation of walking beneath an aquamarine sky and looking up at a sun that seemed too blue and too small.

  As far as important discoveries went, I had to settle for the daily breakthroughs of the biologists. The biggest one was the fact that life on Aurora was not based on DNA, but rather on a previously unknown nucleic acid molecule with a hexagonal cross-section. A few days later came the finding that the protein building-blocks of Auroran life consisted of twenty-two amino acids instead of just twenty.

  Exciting and heady information though these details might be for the fraction of Earth's population who were molecular biologists, I needed a subject that would grab the average reader's attention. That meant either danger or sex or both -- suitably phrased for the Washington Post, of course. I abandoned my half-written amino acid column and went down to the biolab to wheedle something worth writing about out of the biologists.

  Singh was in the middle of something delicate and didn't have time to talk, but Rachel Zalcberg said she could spare a few minutes while she waited for some test results.

  About three months into the hyperspace flight, I'd made a pass at Rachel. She'd shot me down in no uncertain terms. Asking her about alien sex was definitely not the right place to start, so I focused on danger. "Since life here on Aurora is so different, how likely is it that there is some sort of disease organism that our immune system can't handle?"

  She waved a hand dismissively. "Most disease organisms have trouble crossing the species barrier. Genetically, you're closer to an elm tree than to anything here, and you don't have to worry about Dutch elm disease. Our biochemistry is so different, the Auroran equivalents of bacteria and viruses wouldn't be able to reproduce inside us, assuming they even managed to survive at all."

  That ruled out the danger angle, but since she'd brought up the subject of reproduction . . . "How do the animals here reproduce?"

  She surprised me by grinning. "You will not believe how different it is. It's very exciting. I haven't had a chance to write this up yet, but I will before the next homelink. Just be sure to credit me with the discovery when you talk about it in your column."

  "Of course." I leaned forward.

  "Our initial examination showed that all the life here is asexual: There are no divisions between male and female."

  "I know what asexual means." It meant biologist exciting, not reader exciting.

  "We are isolated here, so it may not hold true for the whole planet, but for now it's all we have. Some of the life here reproduces by budding, essentially splitting off a little clone of itself. However, that doesn't account for the genetic diversity we've seen within species. And then we caught some of our lab specimens being naughty."

  "Naughty? I thought they didn't have sex."

  "Not exactly. One of our furry slugs -- we haven't come up with a scientific name for it, yet -- ate another one. Swallowed it whole."

  "Cannibalism?" Maybe there was something here after all.

  "Reproduction. After a few hours, that slug's skin hardened into a sort of cocoon. Two days later the cocoon cracked, and out came four s
maller furry slugs. And each of the four is genetically different, with two-thirds of the genetic material from one slug, one-third from the other. Two slugs died and four were born."

  It was good enough for one of those more-things-in-heaven-and-earth-than-are-dreamt-of-in-your-philosophy columns. I even got some footage of the new furry slugs for my CNN commentary.

  I had the biologists to thank for the other highlight of that week. Coupled with the chemists' analysis of the atmosphere which showed there were no threatening toxins, the biologists' report that there was no significant disease threat meant we were authorized to go outside without spacesuits, and breathe fresh air for the first time since we'd left Earth almost nine months before.

  I jumped at the chance to be one of the first group to breathe the unfiltered air of another planet. The airlock door hissed open. I took a deep breath, and gagged on an aroma reminiscent of wet dirty socks.

  That footage did not make it into my CNN commentary.

  Opponents of contact with the Auroran civilization point to the tragic experiences of indigenous societies on Earth after contact with more technologically advanced societies. Indeed, the histories of Native American tribes, Australian aborigines, Native Siberians and many others prove that such contact can be disastrous. But isn't the whole point of learning from history the idea that we can do better? If humanity could not progress, if we were forever destined to remain the same barbaric species that came out of the caves, then we would not even be debating this issue: we would be out conquering the Aurorans to use them as slave labor. Yes, our past demands that we proceed with caution, but our future demands that we proceed.

  Perhaps the approval from UNSA would have come anyway, although I like to think my columns in favor of contact with the Aurorans had some effect. Our supplies limited us to only six months on the planet before we would have to begin the return journey to Earth, but we would be able to spend the last two of those months near an Auroran city.

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