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Contact With Chaos: Chapter One
Last updated: Thursday, December 11, 2008 00:23 EST
Citizen Mark Ballenger wondered how he'd been so lucky. Of all the hundreds of Citizens available in the Halo and near out-system, why had the Council picked him to be the first envoy to a possible alien civilization?
It wasn't strictly luck, he reflected. The situation required something be done fast. Halo Materials Group was already planning a response, according to an informant, and there was some buzz at high levels. Deep Space Resources, HMG's main competitor, was trying to get in on the act. Since the system was inhabited, it couldn't just be staked by HMG. So whoever contracted a deal with the natives first, no matter how flaky and questionable, could start shipping ore and continue until resolution at least, then, even if ordered out, could sell any charts or surveys. Nothing like a Credit symbol with a "1" and a few groups of zeroes following to motivate people. He wondered who else would horn in on this.
There was nothing the Freehold government could officially do. At the same time, it was obvious some kind of moderating influence, or at least an observer, was necessary to this pending orgy of good old-fashioned land grabbing. Mark had a degree in international relations from Western and had made his fortune as a contract sales rep, brokering deals between manufacturers, and later, megacorps. That, and he happened to be at Faeroe Station when the word came down. He had the background; knew most of the players, in fact, and was closest. So it was his task by default.
He foresaw a small chance of success, and a large chance of a giant goat rodeo. He really did feel honored. He also wondered when it would all fall apart.
Faeroe Station was a 16km chunk of rock, situated near Jump Point Four. It was as far from anything as one could get and still be within the Freehold of Grainne. Mark's business here was resolving yet another dispute between mining and spacing employees and their bosses. It had been an ongoing problem for decades. The locus had been reasonably high in KBOs and ore-bearing rocks, though it was now largely worked out. JP4 handled traffic to systems that were populated only by researchers and mining engineers, and had a small Star Guard garrison to support that. Fortuitously, that meant lots of scientists were handy. It did minimize immediate spectators, which was why the news of the event was almost entirely rumor and speculation. It also meant a military ship had to be brought from elsewhere, which was going to add to those rumors.
The station was sparse and spartan, but modern enough. Mark wasn't uncomfortable. Despite the station's raw size, the actual amount of cubic and passageway was fairly low. He could find his way around without too much trouble. He half-walked and half-swam the hewn corridors in the marginal gravity, following illuminated tags triggered by the mapping function in his comm.
Doctor Landrieu McDonald had been appointed as the lead scientist for the project. On file, he had years of experience running expeditions and dealing with other scientists, and had produced results. In person, he was as "normal" as a scientist could ever be. Mark was thankful he wasn't an unrepentant geek. He'd met McDonald previously, and found him to be steady, thoughtful and remarkably unprejudiced. A good scientist.
McDonald was in his office, with the hatch open. Mark tapped on the frame and drew himself through with both hands.
"Good morning, doctor. Amazing opportunity, isn't it?"
"Absolutely, Citizen," McDonald said, bounding off his stool. Faeroe had centripetal gravity, but it was only 30% at the perimeter. At this level, it was barely 15%. He caught himself on the rock wall, deliberately. That fall was a learned maneuver in this environment. He extended a hand and Mark shook it. He was a good 20 cm taller than Mark, with lankier limbs. About as broad, but that muscle stretched over a long frame raised in space, not Mark's more compact high-G build.
He said, "I hope we managed to get a good cross-section, since we had to go with who was available and did it by committee, across several light years."
"I think we'll do okay, sir. I approve of most of the choices, and I don't see a real problem with any of them." He bounced by, then led Mark out into the passageway and down it. "Do you want introductions, sir?"
Mark followed along and said, "Please give me a quick face to face and then thumb bios and pics I can look at later. I won't possibly remember everyone at the moment. And call me Mark, please Land."
"Yes, Mark. Congrats on your status." McDonald grinned and gestured the way. Ahead was a closed pressure lock, marking the change to another compartmented section. A rack of safety gear, emergency lights and warning signs reinforced that fact. It was big enough for several people, and they cycled through together. The equal pressure meant the chore took moments only.
The lock opened into a large workroom. It was filled with what looked like a class of college kids and profs, all gathered around screens, pointing, talking, making notes on screens and in mics. Three were in uniform. There was moderate light from glowtubes, and more from screens and commsheets.
"Thank you," Mark said to the earlier comment. Then, "Good to see they're already at work," more softly. Indeed. That made several things easier.
In a few moments everyone was paying attention to him, so he figured he should say something.
"I'm Citizen Ballenger, the official Envoy," he said. "Don't let me interrupt you. We can get introduced later. We'll be boarding on short notice, so please be ready. The military in general does not yet know the nature of this expedition. Once we are in system you are free to talk as duty permits and on anything cleared by your department heads. There is still a risk of intel compromise even aboard ship. Until then, refer any inquiries to me, even if it's the Captain. No discussions at all. Understood?"
Assent ranged from nod or mumble to "Yes, sir." That was fine for this type of group, and he knew they'd all signed non-disclosures. Already, perfection gave way to expedience. These were the best people available in the Halo or within short travel time, with training in the proper fields and who were known to be discreet. Better scientists could follow along later.
McDonald said, "We have forty segs to arrival, and we expect to board as soon as it's docked and clear. It's going to be a mess aboard, but we'll straighten it out."
Mark drifted back and let them work. He overheard some poli-sci discussions he understood, and physics and technical ones he didn't. Halfway in between were history and anthropology that he could mostly follow. There was no telling what kind of science would be needed, so a broad spectrum of all were being takenmaterials science, biology, chemistry, astronomy, logic, mathematics, zoology, botany, politics, anthropology, linguistics, cryptology, philosophy, cognitive science combining several of those together. Other, less known disciplines and a platoon of assorted engineers were along, journalists and documenters in official capacity, not as news shills. As soon as this bundle of brains came aboard, the military would pretty well figure out exactly what was going on. He wasn't sure what to do about that. He left them to work and went to check on other matters.
Mark realized he didn't even know what ship had been arranged by the ad hoc committee. The messages took entire segs to reach the capital, then more to return. The Citizens chosen were scattered across the system. In two days, he'd sent several hundred messages, and got several hundred back, some of which were long outdated by the time he saw them, regarding threads long since closed. Documentary skill was something he used often. However, not all Citizens had his background. It was a jumbled mess. He called to Faeroe Control and asked.
"The Healy, sir," one of the controllers on duty said. "Arriving exactly on time, they just called in for anchoring. They won't be docking, correct?"
"Correct. We're taking boats out. Thank you." He closed and realized he'd have to move. He wanted to depart fast, and there was just time to board boat.
Two station hands assigned to watch the bumbling mudsucker met him at the boat bay with his gear. He had far more than he should, because formal clothes could prove as important as environmental gear or body armor. The scientists were already gathered, most with a single duffel. They'd been told mass was at a premium. Some looked curiously at Mark, some nodded, and a few looked annoyed.
He pushed his way to the front, his temporary aides following, and pulled himself into the first boat. The occupants were three crew and a bunch of what looked like grad students, in ten styles. They nodded politely and stopped talking. He hated that, but he couldn't do much.
The launch was far gentler than he expected, but then, they were traveling only a couple of kilometers. Velocity paid for now would have to be paid for in return. It took very little time as it was, the boat shuddered, clanked and chuffed as pressure equalized.
Two eager academics dove for the lock. Beyond it, Mark heard, "Party, tenSHUN!" The two slipped back flushing crimson. They'd just received a salute intended for the Citizen. He wasn't angry, only amused, and sorry for them making a faux pas. The protocol probably hadn't been covered in school.
Mark moved quickly through, waved acknowledgement to the reception party and said, "As you were." He reached out for a quick slap of palms with the Captain, in lieu of shaking. It was about all one could manage in a boat bay with no gravity.
"Citizen," the Captain greeted with a nod. "Captain Commander Rulon Betang. I've been placed at your disposal. Can you tell me what this urgency is about?" They swam away from the lock to allow others to debark and to gain some measure of privacy.
"Only that it involves the security of the Freehold, and that a small amount of military presence might be needed," he admitted.
"Can you define 'small amount'?"
"Perhaps a gunboat. Sending a cruiser is overkill," Mark said.
"Good. I always like to know I have more than enough resources for the job at hand."
"That was the Council's thinking on the matter." And my own. And you were the only ship available, so hope it doesn't blow up big.
"No other details?"
"Not until we are underway. Then I can give you a briefing."
"Understood. We have several personnel meeting us here from leave. I assume we can wait for them?"
"No, we need to move fast."
Betang raised his eyebrows. "Our SOP also includes fuel surveys and maintenance reports."
"Leave without them. I'll authorize the situation so the crew are not in violation of missing a movement. If these reports are not urgent safety issues, skip them, please."
His expression said Betang realized this was serious. "Yes, sir. I hope whoever we are meeting is reasonable." Yes, it wasn't hard to figure out why a ship would move that fast, with civilian experts aboard.
"As do I. Enough said for now."
The Captain was good to his word. Segs later, Daniel Healy was topped with conversion mass and ready. With no fanfare and no notice other than data in a log, the first human expedition to an alien intelligence got under way.
Mark woke up groggy. He liked micro-G for resting, but it took a couple of days to adapt. They were also in phase drive, which didn't quite feel like emgee, more like tottering on the edge of a cliff as shifts took place. He didn't know the technical details, but did know it was complex, and keeping the ship in one piece was part of the task. If energy levels got out of whack, boom! He wasn't overly worried about that, since he could do nothing about it, but the combination itself, as well as it being a constant reminder of the gravity of this mission, did not make for good rest.
Shipboard food was still shipboard food. The menu was a bit more elaborate than he recalled, the quality adequate but not inspiring. He was left alone to eat. While he wasn't a celebrity, everyone aboard had to know who he was by now, and his civilian coverall, while spaceworthy, was not a uniform. He'd known that his status would create a huge social barrier, but knowing so was not the same as the feeling of aloneness he actually felt now.
Once done eating, he checked for updates. Little from the Council or committee, a few more details. HMG had done the right thing so far; identified the situation and left. However, they planned to return on their own. This was where the laissez-faire minimalist government of the Freehold was a drawback. A conglomerate with a profit motive and few sociologists should not be allowed to act like the East India Company, the early American settlers and the Conquistadores rolled into one. Those lessons had been learned the hard way. There was nothing in the Freehold Constitution to stop that, however. Officially, Mark's mission was separate and unrelated. Unofficially, they needed to get there first, set up shop, possibly get introduced, and pre-empt any one-sided trade deals.
There was also the unknown of just where the natives were technologically, or how they'd react. No data.
That left Mark in a holding pattern until he could learn more.
The official party was scheduled to meet in one of the cargo bays. He sought directions and followed a blinking light through white metal passageways. The color was intended to make searches easy. It got sterile and depressing fast.
The Captain had done his job. The cargo bay was empty, stripped, with intel gear set up to stop eavesdropping, security posted, and active countermeasures to kill bugs. It was a large open compartment with cable and pipe bundles on overhead and walls, deckplates below and a few chairs.
He nodded to Betang and his staff, looked around at the occupantsthe same scientists, plus a few more and a very few crew who'd be providing satellite and boat support.
"Please let me know as soon as the cabin is secured," he said behind him.
"It's tight, sir," a commo tech said with a nod.
"Thank you," he said, and raised his voice. "As some of you know, Captain, Doctor McDonald," he nodded, "I'm Citizen Ballenger. I've basically hijacked your ship and crew for a technical and diplomatic mission."
"What mission?" the XO asked, unprompted but timely.
"HMG found a resource-laden system that is in contention, and that presents some unique diplomatic issues," he said, testing the waters.
A female officer near the front, intelligence from her insignia, said, "Let me guess, it's inhabited by sentients?"
"It is inhabited by sentients," Mark agreed. Damn, that was faster and smoother than he expected.
"Really? I was joking," she chuckled nervously.
"I wish I was," Mark said. Ah, well. He hadn't expected great secrecy. Nor was it hard to deduce.
"Why one cruiser?" the Captain asked. "Why not an entire fleet, armed?"
"Their technical level appears to be pre-industrial, possibly iron age."
"That's interesting," the Captain said. Lots of people were jerking upright now. This was for real. First contact.
"The Council's primary concern is our presentation. Both HMG and DSR are already responding. HMG's ship departed before we left. There are bound to be other commercial interests, plus possibly missionaries and kooks. Also, the UN will obviously send someone when they find out, and the Galactic Alliance." That name still made him chuckle with its pretentiousness. The seventeen systems of the old Colonial Alliance, plus the three secondary colonies, hardly constituted "Galactic" anything, and even less now, with aliens on the horizon.
"So you expect any shooting to be at other humans, not aliens," the intel officer said.
"Secure that, Phelan," the XO warned.
"Sorry, sir," she replied, eyes still grinning.
"Let me keep this brief," Mark continued. "What we're doing is not only unique, it's something that calls for a substantial mission, in the political and diplomatic sense. We don't have that, so I'm going to be dependent upon all of you to cover the necessary roles, keep me apprised and act on behalf of the Council as well as your respective organizations. This mission is technical, diplomatic, political and possibly social. We cannot, should not and will not stop legitimate industrial and commercial operations from dealing with our new neighbors. I'm hoping to persuade them to join us and present a unified face for a favorable impression. But if someone goes off half-cocked, we could have a diplomatic mess at best, and we still aren't positive their technology is only iron age. Nor would that stop them from allying with some other group and bringing modern power to bear. If we can offer deals, so can they.
"So, while the government has no official interest in trade, it does have a de facto and legitimate interest in national defensenot creating a situation that will adversely affect the Freehold. Once the initial mission is over, and an embassy established, at that point everyone can have at it with the aliens and whatever representatives they so choose. With all human systems, that mechanism existed from the beginning. Here it does not."
There were mutters and whispers. None of these people, scientists or officers, were fools. This could turn ugly quickly especially for the people on the ground. Nor did anyone want their name attached to a screwup in the history books.
"I'll be consulting as follows: Doctor McDonald's scientific group, shipboard intel and recon, shipboard support and transport, and landing party support. We will also need a security element that is discreet and can effect recovery, or retreat under fire. If anything else occurs to anyone, please bring it up to me, the Captain or Doctor McDonald. I should be talking to each of you individually to get more background and information, but until I have the basics set up, that's going to be impossible. I will be consulting with everyone after we enter the system and start working. In the meantime, my distance is not meant to be rude or condescending."
The only response was a few nods.
"With that said, everyone please get to doing your jobs, and give us as much head start as possible. Thanks and good day." He turned, lowered his voice and said, "Captain, I'm going to get some exercise and start work from my stateroom. Anyone can reach me as needed. I hope you or one of your officers can stop by for lunch and give me a briefing on what the military needs from me."
"Will do, Citizen. So it is first contact?" Betang quivered.
"Thank you deeply for letting me be part of it, even if it was largely chance." The expression on his face was easy to read. It was one of wonder, awe and excitement. This could give his career a tremendous boost, but that wasn't the point. The point was to be there, doing something that had never been done before.
"You're welcome," Mark grinned for the first time in days. "We're all going to make history."
As he left, he thought to himself, let's make sure it's as heroes, not villains.
He entered his stateroom to find a crewwoman straightening and cleaning.
"Thank you, Spacer Two," he said, "but it's not necessary. I'll call if I need anything."
"It's not necessary, Citizen, but it's discreet." She stood up from making the bunk and smiled. "My actual rank is Blazer Captain, and I'll be in charge of ground security, and your personal security element. Chelsea Jelling, pleased to meet you, sir." She offered a hand.
He shook and said, "I imagine 'Blazer' is not quite correct." She was probably a Black Ops officer, he surmised, but one of the Blazer Recon or Pioneer units was possible, too.
"You know I will not comment on that, sir," she said. Her hair was slicked and tied back, and was a lustrous red. Her eyes were sea blue, with a skewering gaze that peeled him down, determined his competencies and threat level, categorized him and watched for his response. Now that she was upright, he could see she was nothing but rippling muscle, slim but solid. She was beautiful the same way a shark, ripper or leopard was, in perfect development for her purpose, which was to kill people.
"You need to pick a new cover name. I recognize that one from a war history thesis I read."
He gave her points for not twitching. "I'm not sure what you're referring to, but I will use a different name for discretion, when opportunity presents. Thanks for the information, sir."
"Drop the act. What are you planning for security?"
"Yes, sir," she said, and relaxed visibly. "As soon as we know what their tech level is, I will consult with you and arrange the appropriate weaponry. Some will be ceremonial, some brutally practical and some completely hidden. We'll arrange commo and gear so we can recover anyone missing or abducted, or, if that is not possible, make it impossible for them to be a source of intelligence against us. We will arrange to destroy or recover any equipment that could compromise us, and we'll act as bodyguards, both formal and practical."
"There's a good chance the weapons will be bows and spears."
She nodded and grinned. "We trained with those, and refresh periodically. That will be fascinating if it happens."
"In the meantime you'll stop by here for briefs?"
"And to check your cabin for any intel gear, yes, sir. It's clean today, as best I can tell. I would not assume HMG doesn't have a shill in the crew who'll try to get in here. They can offer a tremendous bribe or blackmail, under the circumstances."
"Understood, and thank you." That had occurred to him, but he hadn't taken steps to prevent it yet, other than silence and sequestering of the ship. Signals came in nonstop, though, and people who worked with signals could also manage to eavesdrop.
Two days later, Healy phased back into normal space, in the outer Halo of the system. It didn't take long to find HMG's ship. It was in the outer system, doing surveys of KBOs, outer planets, planetoids and chunks of rock. That actually was eminently practical, and Mark gave them points for it. The information would be of scientific and commercial interest to anyone who did open things up here, and was sellable. They'd likely recouped their costs so far and then some. He had no illusions that would be enough to satisfy them, though.
There was nothing for Mark to do the first several days, except receive updates on remote sensor data and integrate the little that came through. The warship had better tactical sensors than the mining survey ship. It did not have the capability of a dedicated research vessel, even with upgrades and supplemental software. However, a few things became obvious.
107 Piscis was a K1 dwarf, its approximate age and spectra were on record, and it was easy enough to deduce mass. There were five planets. One was a burning rock in close, one was the inhabited one, and the three outer ones were gas giants, verging on brown dwarfs. The metal content was about 63% that of Sol, which for stellar purposes meant "anything other than hydrogen."
Astronomer James Zihn hardly slept or ate. He didn't have the best instruments available, but he fine-tuned and took multiple scans. He and McDonald sat down with Mark to go over the findings. The briefing table was in one corner of the bay, and other activity was going on around them, with a respectful few meters of distance for privacy.
"There are a few obvious facts," Zihn said. He was a dapper, bearded man with a thick shock of black hair and an expressive face that was smiling in professional satisfaction. "The halo is marginal but exploitable. I've got probably half the information HMG does already. The gas giants are high G, so a little harder to exploit, but loaded with helium, neon, argon, methane. They're exploitable by scoopship, and will provide a lot of material for any kind of ongoing operation, as well as marketable resources."
Mark twitched. He didn't want a market survey. HMG would have that. He realized, though, this was necessary background and waited.
Zihn continued, "One notable lack is an inner planetoid belt. There's very little debris, most of it swept away. None of the denser ores most life systems have." He flashed some charts onscreen, which meant little to Mark, but apparently matched the briefing. "The inner planets have nominally typical cores and structure. What metal there is is all in planetary cores. 'Metal' in the chemical sense, not the astronomical sense."
Mark knew this was significant but wasn't quite following yet. "In other words, the system's marginal as a source of high grade ore, decently conducive to space habitation, and has locals on a normal-type planet we can't use."
McDonald said, "You'll have to spell it out, Jim."
Zihn nodded, now serious. "Sir, that's a correct summary of the system. You're more interested in the planet. Most exploitable metal ores on Earth, Grainne, any of our planets, are near the surface due to either volcanic action or meteoric impact. There are near zero metal impactors in this system, and while volcanism isn't my field, the inhabited one seems stable enough to have minimal heavy metal output."
That made sense. It sounded impossible, though. "So the definite signs of technology we see are stone age only, because they have no metal? Is life possible without metal?"
McDonald said, "There is metal. All the lighter metals used in biological processes are present. What is not present are large masses of copper, iron, cobalt, nickel, anything that could readily be smelted and used for tools. Aluminum, titanium and other light metals require sophisticated chemical or electrolytic means to reduce. No iron or copper means no electricity. I've handed this over to the anthropologists to kick around, and we'll need to make a closer survey."
"I understand," Mark said. Indeed he did. Whatever species was down there was trapped by its environment and would never be able to leave. Agriculture was certainly a stone age invention, Late Neolithic. Those photos of rectilinear land indicated they had it on a fairly broad scale. For how long? Recent? Some time? Their social development could be anything from savagery to say, Mesopotamian. He'd have to read up on those aspects to see where it went. That, and HMG would want to move in, strike a deal for anything exportable in exchange for tools that would make whichever group got them the planetary warlords, and massively disrupt whatever societies there were.
He noticed Lieutenant Shraybman waiting behind the two scientists. He raised an eyebrow, she nodded. He waved her over. Shraybman was assigned to control communications for the expedition. She had final say on anything going out or in, unless he overrode her. It annoyed the scientists greatly, but the security was necessary.
"We have incoming, Citizen," she said. "I just got word from Command."
"Two ships, sir. A cruiser with a UN delegation, and a survey ship from Deep Space Resources, HMG's main competitor in this direction. They both tightbeamed, both polite requests we not do anything until they arrive."
"How polite?" he asked.
She grinned. "The UN was in diplospeak, sir. Requesting indulgence, in the spirit of joint human endeavor, et cetera, signed by an Ambassador Nurin Russ. He checks out. Do you know him?"
"Never heard of him. Who is he?"
"Some undersecretary of Indigenous Persons Affairs. I think that's for Earth indigenes, but it makes sense to send him here. DSR was less flowery, but requested HMG not be allowed to proceed without their presence, to help moderate the event and provide the locals with more options, and so they can have a chance at a deal themselves."
"I'll grant the UN because they're not being demanding assholes, and DSR because they were honest enough to admit to a profit motive," he replied. "Tell both they can dock and meet here. Three person max per delegation. Call HMG and tell them they're outnumbered, outgunned and will do everyone a favor if they come to the council fire. Land, do you have anything to add?" he asked McDonald.
The scientist seemed amused. "That seems to be it for now. We can share whatever you want to share when they arrive."
"Got it, sir," Shraybman nodded and swam back to her station.
McDonald cautiously asked, "Are we going to be sharing?"
"Certainly," Mark agreed. "The more brains working on this, the better, and the less likely someone will sneak off to find their own data and screw things up. Sorry for that. Doctor Zihn, do you have anything to add?"
"No, fortunately I had concluded," Zihn smiled with twinkling eyes. "I'll go back and look at more graphs."
"Good. Captain Jelling," he spoke into his commlink as they left.
"Right behind you, sir," she said. He jerked. Dammit, he hated that.
"Very perceptive," he looked at her. She wasn't grinning in triumph or amusement. He decided it hadn't been any kind of point mechanism, she was just eager and efficient. "I'll want you to stop anyone bringing in any recording device we don't know about, and be sure we can scramble or suppress those we do. Sidearms only, no heavy weapons, and I may limit that completely when we land. I hate doing it but it's going to be tense and I don't want anyone trying to argue the point on who gets data."
"I'll talk to Shraybman, my Special Projects people, and have it ready, sir," she said. "Call if you need anything."
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