ORIGINAL FICTION: "Bob and the Cargo of Death" by Republibots 2.0 and 3.0

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I'm not often angry.  I'm firmly of the belief that strong emotion is like strong drink: It clouds your judgement and makes you do things you'll regret. However, as I was seated across from where I assumed I would be seeing the CSSF General; I fumed.

No, I didn't fume: I cursed violently and loudly, and I vaguely remember banging things about; my arrival on Earth was only slightly less ceremonious than being hoodwinked and shanghaied by a press gang.

The problem with not allowing myself any strong emotions was that I didn't have much practice in using them when they unexpectedly arose.  Like a rookie drinker, I was soon done almost as soon as I‘d lost control.  Amazingly, that instant, the General breezed into the office and sat behind his desk.

"Have a seat, Bob!  I can call you 'Bob', can't I?  My name is Li "

I looked around.  I had broken all the chairs. I didn't remember breaking the chairs, but there they were... broken.

"I think I'll stand, thank you"

"Suit yourself.  Drink?"

He was a genial looking older gentleman.  I wondered what ship he called home. but not enough to ask.

"No, thanks."

He looked me up and down with what appeared to be genuine sorrow in his eyes.  "I deeply regret the inconvenience we've put you through, but believe me; it's for your own safety."  He pushed a magazine across the desk towards me.  I turned it so that I could get a good look at it... the date on the cover made it current, and my ugly mug was plastered on it.  I don't remember ever having that expression, and I wondered who took that shot.  I saw my face, dark with puzzlement and rage, the corpse of a Gagarin whaloid in the background.  The word "Why?" was emblazoned across the magazine cover....

I felt some of that anger return.  I still *wanted* to know why.  Whales were all-but-extinct on earth. I’d been sent to the planet Gagarin in Tau Ceti to capture some of the local whale-like creatures - genetically all-but-identical to earth whales - in hopes that they’d breed together and repopulate the various species. It was a long and arduous trip - twenty-five years objectively, a year subjectively - and I’d nearly been killed. When we returned to earth space, I’d signed my cargo over to the United Nations Environmental and Wildlife Ministry. They’d thanked me for my work, and then slaughtered my whaloids in the name of some hokum about ‘protecting the genotype’ or some other xenophobic nonsense.

“Cutting straight to the point, Bob, you have become a symbol for us... this photo, more than any other, depicts our efforts to help our brethren on Earth, and the betrayal by those who we thought were friends"

"I didn't sign up for this"

"Actually, you did.  All of us did when we agreed to join Gene's fleet"
For a minute, I wondered if feelings were subject to mathematic manipulation.   Could you feel betrayed, squared?  I think I did, but it was unpleasant, so I buried it.

"So I'm a symbol."

"Originally, yes, but now you're a symbol and a target."

"Oh. I see."  I didn't, but by now, I had too much raw feeling running through me, and I really didn't feel like processing more.  If every trip to Earth was going to do this to me, I believe that I may just stop leaving the ship. I'd spent the night in Hong Kong, the major spaceport in Asia, and was attempting to fly back to the 'States when several goons - apparently leashed to the General here - jumped me, knocked me out, and dropped me off on the couch in this now-trashed office.

"We had to get you out of the airport terminal safely and before anybody saw you.  For your safety, really."

I was still a bit put out, but as my curiosity grew, my annoyance was starting to fade.  I really had wanted to see Earth.  I had seen all the publicity materials that declared a new "golden age,” with engineering marvels and lifestyle conveniences that had to be seen to be believed.  I wanted to believe, but it looked like I wouldn't be seeing much this trip.

"Okay, so how're you going to get me back on the landing boat?"

The General stared blankly at me for a second.

"No, no, no! We have something for you that would help us out immensely! And I promise, you'll be able to get some tourism in.  Earth has become rather nice since you've last been here"

I was puzzled.  How had he known that I was thinking about playing tourist?  I put down the brochure I'd absentmindedly been holding and gave him my best 'Skeptical Engineer' look.  I'd been working on that one since Asia had commented on how I lacked "expression".

"As soon as the president arrives, we can brief you."

“The president?”

“Yes.”

“Of the United States?”

“Yes.”

“Huh.”

I stink at small talk, so I let the thread of conversation drop there. I stood in the office like a garden-variety moron while a cleaning crew made short work of the mess I'd made.  I probably should've apologized for trashing the poor guy's office, but to be quite frank, after what I'd been through, he'd deserved it. As my eyes wandered around the room, I noticed that there were several weapons mounted on the walls-- a  ceremonial service saber-- West Point, I think... some dueling pistols that looked to be of some sort of oriental make caught my eye.  About the time that chairs arrived, the Traitor, Lester P (for Penis) Wynans strolled through the door. 

By the time my hands reached for his throat, two apes in human skin grabbed my arms and held them firmly at my side.  I should've made a play for the pistols or the sword.

"Bob!  Old friend, how have you been?"  If slime could use sound waves as a carrier, I now knew what it would sound like.

"You treasonous son of a bitch!"

"Ah.  I forget.  The last time we were together was... unpleasant"

"Unpleasant?!??"  I sputtered.  Getting kicked in the 'nads was "unpleasant".  Having your arm go to sleep underneath two tons of dead whaleoid is "unpleasant".  There weren't adequate words to describe the "unpleasantness" of seeing Les again.

"Understand, Bob, that was a quarter of a century ago to us here on Mother Earth.  Bygones."

"When the president gets here, I'm filing a complaint"

An ugly sound rose in his throat.  The General looked embarrassed.  I realized that Les was chuckling softly to himself--- my blood reached -273 degrees, Celsius.

Les WAS the president!

"Bob, I've always only wanted the best for everybody.  Those things I said about Gene, I didn't mean them.  Gene knows that... I needed to be trusted by the other side so that I could work within the system.  I throw the extremists a bone to shut them up so I can continue working for the greater good."   

God help me, it made sense.  I had known Les since we were kids together. We were the same age back then. He was fifty now, but I was still only twenty-five. He'd gotten me into Gene's space program...  and as I looked at his face, the grey showing at his temples, the lines around his eyes-- for the first time since getting back, I actually felt like time had passed.  This couldn't be the same young environmentalist radical that had turned his back on everything we stood for all those years ago.  I couldn't find the extremist in Les's face, but I saw my old friend in his eyes.

God help me, he needed something.

An hour later, after Les had explained everything to me and what this mission entailed, I was still confused.

"You say that the EE's” - Environmental Evangelists, our slang for fanatical earth-first types - “want to discredit the colonies?"

"Right."

"How do we know this?"
"General Li has a man on the inside"

I looked at the General, he nodded.  "My oldest son,  Alex"

"So they're planning on hijacking a pulse rocket delivery", I paused.  This is where it got confusing...

"To one of the Lagrange colonies" Les  explained, again.  The varnish was beginning to wear off of his smile.

"But they’re not from Gagarin, and they’re not flying one of Gagarin’s vehicles, what do we care?"

"True, but the real enemy here--- as far as they are concerned--- is the Nuclear Pulse Rocket"

"So, they want to destroy the launch sites by 'dropping rocks' on them?" I asked.

"If by 'dropping rocks' you mean "steel jacketed cargo pods" then, yes."

"And by doing that, they accomplish....?" I asked. Something didn’t add up.

Les paused

"You don't understand these people, Bob."

"That much is obvious, but I don't understand most people"

President Wynans explained, "I know that you know that even if their terror attack worked, it would be at best-- from their point of view-- a temporary set back.  You could begin launching cargo from New Mexico and the Gobi and Kalahari desert within weeks.  They're looking at the symbolism of using the orbital colonies’ cargo lifeline as a weapon of mass destruction.  What is the kinetic energy involved, based on a 20,000 kilo pod, assuming minimal loss of mass in reentry?"

This was nursery school stuff. I rattled the answer off the top of my head: "About two and a quarter times 10 to the 12th Joules...  as far as bombs go, kind of puny, really. Just half a kiloton, roughly"

"As far as symbols go, quite the bombshell," General Li observed.

I suddenly got it.  It wasn't about the destruction.  It was about leverage!  Manipulating public response-- as soon as I could translate it into the mechanics of moving ideas around instead of things-- bombing the launch sites wasn't about injuring our launch capabilities; it was about injuring our image. Instead of manipulating the forces of nature, they were manipulating symbols.

It was engineering now.  Now I understood.
  
***

I was being sent undercover, so they altered my appearance- I wouldn't allow them to do plastic surgery, so they made some facial appliances out of silicone and synthskin.  After they were done, I looked like a burn victim- and that was a good thing.   With my dawning awareness of symbolic engineering, I knew that most people choose not to see anything that makes them uncomfortable.  This, in the right hands, was a tool.  I needed anonyminity, and my real face was plastered all over the place.  Magazines, three-vee... I may've made the cover of travel guides by now.  A close look at my altered face, and I would be recognized, so  I needed one that wouldn't get a second look.  I needed a face that no one would want to GIVE a second look.

I got to the Nuclear Dynamics recruitment center in Singapore the following day.   Surprisingly, they needed an engineer for the next launch with exactly the qualifications that I had on my resume.  I assume that the sudden shortage in pulse rocket thruster techs was Les's people clearing the way for my infiltration.  I made a note of the clerk who processed  my papers:  A Chinese woman with the name Lily Chan Yuet-Wing.  She wore a blue flower in her hair.  Something about the way she wore it- I knew it had to symbolize something.

"Excuse me, but I couldn't help but notice that lovely flower in your hair."   

Her face darkened a bit.  "I wear this flower because I have lost my children."

"I am so sorry for their passing, Mrs. Chan."

She brightened a bit, but I didn't quite buy the act.

"They are not dead... they went to the stars...like many others"  She shot me a look, and she stared at my features for just a little too long.  She wasn't buying my act either, it seemed.  My newfound awareness of people and their emotional state was not always a comfortable thing.  We passed the remaining time in awkward silence, made all the more awkward by my noticing it's awkwardness.

Soon, the paperwork was done, and I went to the spaceport's commissary for some lunch.   I tried to find a table alone so that I could get my bearings, but they were all occupied.  I felt like an idiot, standing in the middle of the cafeteria - high school again - until a pretty young girl in the orange jumpsuit of a cargo handler motioned me over.  I looked around- I'm not a looker in the best of times, but with this disguise, I felt like an uncomfortable dolt at a costume party.  When I was sure that she meant for me to join her table, I walked over as nonchalantly as possible.

"Hi!" she beamed.  "I'm Nancy!"

"Hi.  I'm John," I lied.

She looked around conspiratorially--- then whispered loudly "No, Bob, You're not!"
This was apparently hilarious to the rest of the table, with the exception of a large blonde man whose face was chiseled out of limestone

"ummm...."

She looked at me with wide eyes.  "I can call you Bob, can't I?"

I nodded dumbly

"We were wondering when the UN would send someone to infiltrate our little club.  I'm sooo glad it was you!"

I stared, my food forgotten.

She said, "We aren't terrorists.  And we smell too good to be hippies".  The other half dozen at the table laughed quietly

I couldn't tell.  My prosthetics were the only thing I could smell.

Nancy continued, softly this time.  "We just want to make a statement about resource erosion"

I raised my eyebrow.  At least I THINK I raised my eyebrow.  It was hard to tell.

"We are shooting Mother Earth into space, bit by bit.  If we are going to have colonies, fine, but they need to be self supporting.  All we are going to do is drop the cargo pods into the ocean.  They'll make a big splash in the water, and a bigger splash politically"

Could they have a point? I wondered. The various agencies responsible for this sort of thing were kicking about twenty million pounds of cargo into space on an average of twelve or thirteen times a year, and it had been going on for a decade. That kind of thing definitely could add up in time. Granted, a few billion pounds of resources moved into orbit wouldn’t equal even a fraction of a percent of the planet’s total resources, but huge systems like this tend to be unwieldy and unpredictable. In numbers that bit, an overlooked decimal point can jump out and kill you. I didn’t really buy their argument, but it was worthy of more investigation on my part. Once I’d put these people down, of course.

A young oriental man leaned in "It's our own Tea Party, only the crates are much bigger".  He gave me a conspiratorial wink.  It dawned on me that this was probably Alex Li... but this welcome made no sense.

I must've looked confused.  Nancy laughed in a lilting way that made me feel warm inside. "I'm sorry, I forgot.   You're an enginEER!"  She stretched the last syllable of my job description into the next launch window.  "Your arrival was expected.  Our Dear Uncle Les wanted to be sure that we made you welcome"

Now I was really confused.  If Les had been in communication with the EE Terrorists....

Oh no.  I smelled treason again. 

After lunch, I had to figure out what was going on, so I struck up a conversation with Alex Li,  who was going by the name Alex Hung.    As soon as we were out of earshot of the others,  I asked him point blank: "What is going on here?"
"The plot doesn't make much sense, does it?" he admitted.

"Not a bit," I agreed.

"Here’s what’s going on, as near as I can figure: the president is in communications with this bunch of flower children-- he may even be calling the shots."

For the third time in as many days, I re-re-reevaluated Les.  Why was he doing this?

"Alex, does your Father know about this?"

"No.  In fact it was pretty tough for me to infiltrate this bunch- I've not risked communicating with him since I figured out that the president hasn't strayed too far from his EE roots"

"Some things I don't understand.  Your dad knows that you are in this group... why do we need two infiltrators?  And why an engineer?"

And why me, I wondered, but I left that one unspoken.  I didn't think that I was anything more than a convenient tool for Les to manipulate.

"I feel that he wants you as part of this group to ensure everyone's safety.  I know that it makes me feel a bit more secure to know that you will stop the 'rock drop'"

That made a bit of sense, but I was vaguely unsatisfied with the solution that Alex came up with, given this odd pile of data.

I wished Alex a pleasant afternoon and started walking toward the bus stop.  The sky opened up and rained on me for about six blocks and stopped.  I was very glad that I had remembered an umbrella.

First fact: Les wanted me here.

Second fact: He had arranged this, even to the point of giving my name and description to the very demonstrators I was supposed to be stopping.

Neither of these facts changed my mission at all.  I still needed to make sure those cargo pods stayed fixed to the pulse rocket until it rendezvoused with Caspian Station.

Third Fact: Tall, blond and menacing was following me.  He wasn't at all inconspicuous.  In a population that was mostly Chinese, with some Indian and Malaysian thrown in for spice, a Norse god kind of stuck out like a sore thumb.  I hopped on the bus headed for Toh Payoh... Siegfried decided to wait for the next bus.

Fourth Fact: I tended to misinterpret the human element.  This bothered me; there was no good reason to send ME into orbit.  This was not in my field of expertise. 

I could not escape the conclusion that Les wanted me, Bob Wilson, on that ship for a specific purpose.    The symbols floated in my head while we passed a few marketplaces.   I got off the bus absentmindedly, walked past the Phillips plant and into a hawker centre.  I got some sticky buns and munched on them.  My stomach reminded me that I'd not eaten my lunch as soon as I started chewing on the sweet doughy dumplings.  Rather than enjoy the snack, though, my mind churned through a few dozen scenarios.   Slowly, they began to express themselves as equations in my brain-- and I realized that there wasn't a single solution that didn't depend on an unknown variable: the motivation and goals of one Lester P. (for pain-in-the-ass) Wynans.

I desperately needed more info.  Thor had just wandered into the hawker centre.  He headed toward the Kentucky Fried Chicken in the corner of the marketplace... he hadn't spotted me yet, and assumed that I would head for American food.   At that point, something snapped in my head.  I was now able to determine motivation through induction.  The tall rock-faced blond followed me because he was told to- I didn't need to worry about independent thought from ol' Thor.  

I did need to worry about being spotted though.  As I said, the make-up job was good enough so that bystanders wouldn't want to look at me,  but not good enough to actually hide my ugly mug.  I felt the eyes of a ten year old boy stare at me.  I turned to look at him, but he didn't avert his gaze immediately.  His eyes flicked over to a magazine display in front of the music store.  Damn! The stand display for the Straits Times had that stupid photo of me displayed prominently. 

I had a choice.  Everything in me wanted to run and hide.  If the boy said anything, I'd be mobbed; and I didn't know how friendly Singapore would be to me.  I wasn't in the touristy areas- this was a working class neighborhood.  Swallowing my fear, I winked slowly at the boy and put my finger to my lips conspiratorially.  He grinned for a second, then soberly put his finger to his lips.  I smiled, genuinely relieved.

A tiny cat had sidled up to me as this moment of high drama passed.  I absently petted her as I contemplated my next move.  She was a beautiful grey-brown and ivory with huge eyes, and as soon as I acknowledged her, she jumped on my table and stared at my face.

At this point, I didn't wish to be exposed by a stray cat, so I bid her farewell and walked the four blocks to the flat that Li had rented for me.  I nodded to Thor as I climbed the staircase. Did he blush? That means he was embarrassed, right? Good.

Locking the door, I tried to figure out who could help me fill in the variables in the slippery human equations that were dancing through my head.  God help me, I needed Asia - Anastasia McFadden - my once and former love.  I started laughing- here I was in the middle of Asia, and the Asia that I needed was light years away.  I couldn't stop laughing; the stress and fatigue were beginning to take their toll.

Eventually, I pulled myself together and rang up General Li's secure line.  His face popped up on the display.

"Are we secure?", he asked, per rote.

"Nope. Not even close"  I related my day to the General.  He seemed puzzled by the obvious leaks in the operation- and he was alarmed by the fact that the E.E.'s were leaking in all directions.

I asked the dumb question:"Why does that bother you, General?"

He was kind enough to reward my ignorance.  "Bob, it means that either a) they don't care that we know their intentions or b)this operation is hopelessly compromised and we need to abort it now."

I thought for a second. "We can't abort.  If Les is right, lives may be at stake."

General Li looked at me for a short eternity.  "Have they discovered Alex?"

I didn't know.  They didn't seem to care enough about possible infiltration for it to make a difference.
The General's normally genial face melted into a puddle of worry.

"Bob, I don't know what the nature of your relationship with Les is.  I have to assume that it's ... complicated, and not always friendly."  I nodded.  "Every fiber in my being is begging me to pull the plug on this operation.  It stinks to high heaven.  But you are right, there are lives at stake, more than you could know.  In addition to the ground crews at the NPR launch sites, every single crewman from our ships becomes a target.  Up in orbit, your own ship, the Bahman, could be targeted for a missile strike."

"So, you don't believe that the E.E.'s want to just splash the cargo in the oceans?" I asked.

"I believe that is what they believe.  I do not believe that is what will happen..." He said.

I struggled to process this. "You believe that there are other infiltrators in this group?"

"I do. It makes sense."   He paused.  "Bob, I want you to take care of Alex.  I can't help but think that he's been betrayed.  Get him out of this if you can."

I don't know why I said this.  It still makes no sense to me, but I told Li that I would watch over Alex as if he were my son.  The worried father looked at me with what looked like hope and pride, and then Space Force side of him returned long enough to sign off.
I wrote out my equations on the coffee table.  They still didn't quite add up, even with the addition of a second infiltrator group.  I kept coming back to the relationship between the symbos for the president - les - and the Engineer - me.  It didn't compute.  I was obviously missing something, or misassigning a variable somewhere.  Suddenly, I was hit with a flash of insight.  I was using the wrong symbols...  It wasn't about the president and the Engineer.  It was about the old E.E. activist and the Symbol *I* had unwittingly become.  And it was about Les and Me, personally, and everything else was just distraction.

Although I now knew that I was in deep trouble, I slept well.  I dreamed of Asia.  She morphed into Emily - my rebound girlfriend - and we had a bunch of kids who all looked like Alex Li.   I'm not one to put a lot of stock into the random firing of sleeping synapses, but it struck me as simultaneously weird and comforting.  When the alarm went off, I awoke sure that Les had underestimated me, and I now knew how to complete the mission.  Les wanted me to get all tied up in the personalities; he wanted me to try and solve a whodunit.  If I didn't play the whodunit game, and played to my strengths as an engineer, I was confident that I could prevent very large objects from raining down on the Earth.

To Be Continued...

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