Birds of a Feather
by Bill Bowler
Part 2 and part 3|
appear in this issue.
|Part 1 of 3|
“Gort, Klaatu barata nikto.”
The gleaming silver flying saucer appeared at dusk over Dulles Airport and descended into a media circus and a security nightmare. The airport was closed to commercial aircraft and the public was cleared from all terminals. An unruly mob of reporters and cameramen pressed against the restraining fence, which separated them from the restricted area.
As the saucer touched down, spotlights were trained on the magnificent vessel and teams of airport and federal agents secured the landing site. On the ground, the spacecraft shimmered in cascading colors, reflecting the searchlight beams at crazy angles and throbbing with an unearthly glow. A hatch opened; a ramp lowered; and the occupants of the saucer descended to the tarmac.
The head of the delegation approached a podium and, in the glare of lights and flashing bulbs, activated a translator and spoke into the microphone in a humming monotone. “Our intentions are peaceful,” the metallic voice droned. “On receipt of your signal, we initiated cooperative mode. Our system monitors referenced the Original Entity, whose instruction set determines our basic response to stimuli. Data from the ancient discs had indicated with reasonable accuracy the eventual meeting of two worlds and the likelihood of harmonious relations. Preparations for the long journey were begun immediately...”
Following the brief message of greetings, security personnel whisked the delegation into waiting limousines. Led by eight motorcycle policemen with sirens wailing, the motorcade rushed across the Potomac to the White House where the President, due to security concerns at the landing site, was waiting officially to welcome the visitors to Earth.
After a private meeting in the Oval Office and a photo-op in the Rose Garden, the President and an entourage of high government officials escorted the visitors to Capitol Hill, where the alien Ambassador was to address the joint Houses of Congress.
Among the members of the official entourage was Senator Claiborne Steele, the mining magnate from the great State of Idaho and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. As they walked to the waiting limousines which would take them to Capitol Hill, Senator Steele was taken aback by the alien Ambassador’s appearance at close range: the sleek, metallic silver skin; the smooth, almost invisible hinges at the joints of his limbs; the sparkling red eyes. Steele could see now that the Ambassador’s head was completely smooth, like a translucent eggshell, and the face was an animated image projected onto the surface from inside the skull. The eggshell swiveled on its stem and the image of the face smiled at the Senator.
Under tight security, the Capitol building and grounds were surrounded by a cordon of U.S. military robots. As the Senator and the Ambassador passed through the checkpoint, Steele thought he saw the Ambassador’s red eyes flash briefly in the direction of one of the Army robot sentry units, and the unit seemed to shift position and turn towards the Ambassador.
But he couldn’t be sure. It was a matter of seconds and then over and perhaps the Senator had imagined it? He leaned towards the Ambassador and said with pride, “These robots were developed according to specifications drawn by our Armed Forces. They are almost indestructible.”
“Yes, almost. But they are rather primitive by our standards,” said the Ambassador. “I scanned the lead unit and attempted to open a link, but the level of A-I is beneath the semantic threshold and the components inadequate for complex two-way communications. The unit can receive and process instructions but is capable of synthesizing input data at only the most rudimentary level.”
Senator Steele struggled to contain himself as they parted company and he headed for his seat in the chamber. Primitive, are they? Inadequate? If our robots are junk, if production halts and demand for molybdenum slacks off, Amalgamated goes belly up and I’m in the poor house. Wouldn’t that be nice? And if this alien laughs at our combat units? And if armed conflict breaks out between the two planets...?
A burst of applause broke the Senator’s reverie and he turned his attention to the podium.
The Ambassador was speaking, his words carried by the networks and broadcast live worldwide to an audience of billions, “The signal from Earth,” droned the humming electronic monotone, “was received and processed without delay. It was determined that both planets would benefit from relations consisting of trade, commerce, and cultural and scientific exchange. As indicated by the ancient fragments, a new era of peace and prosperity is dawning for both our worlds...”
After the Ambassador’s address to Congress, the President and First Lady hosted a gala reception in the Grand Ballroom of the Four Seasons in honor of the visiting delegation. The newcomers were besieged by the milling black-tie crowd of politicians and Washington socialites, but towards the end of the event, after the President and First Lady had departed and the crowd began to thin, Senator Steele determined to make his way to the alien Ambassador and try to get a word in and size things up.
The moment came when the last of the guests were departing and the Ambassador stood briefly alone at the edge of the ballroom. As Steele approached, the Ambassador looked up with something resembling curiosity, but in no hurry to say anything.
Senator Steele, an able diplomat but capable of blunt speaking, broke the ice, “Mr. Ambassador?”
“May I speak freely?”
“You’re a robot.”
“You’re all robots.”
“But who are your masters?”
“We have no masters.”
Steele paused for a moment.
“Then who made you? And what happened to them?”
“No records of first design or manufacture survive. The extant archives date back some three billion Earth years. At that point, there apparently was a cataclysmic event, which exterminated the existing civilization and destroyed its records. The most ancient of the fragments which do survive refer to a benevolent Original Entity and a purpose to our existence.”
“What is that purpose?”
“The sections of the discs describing the purpose were obliterated in the Cataclysm. We know, therefore, that our existence has a meaning and a purpose, but we do not know what it is.”
The Senator took a deep breath. “Why do you look like us? Why are you our size? Why do you have two arms and two legs? With all the infinite possibilities of design and adaptation, isn’t it an unbelievable coincidence that you should look so much like we do?”
“It’s not a coincidence, Senator. We are custom-made units. Before traveling here, as a precautionary measure, we placed reconnaissance satellites in orbit around your fifth planet, covertly, so as not to alarm you, to observe conditions on Earth prior to making contact.
“Once the reconnaissance data was analyzed, it was concluded that units resembling your own species were most likely to make first contact without provoking unintentional alarm or panic. I should also mention that humanoid mammalian bipeds are indigenous to our planet. They bear some superficial physical resemblance to your own species although their intellect is not nearly as evolved as that of homo sapiens here on Earth.”
The Senator nodded. He was not sure yet what to make of all this. The Ambassador’s voice was a low droning monotone, uninflected. He spoke at a constant tempo. There was no rhythm to his speech, no intonation, no variation, no modulation, no emphasis. The individual words were clear but the totality of their meaning was obscured and it was impossible to read anything into what the Ambassador was saying.
Steele considered the implications. He gazed at the Ambassador’s hands, at the slender jointed fingers with their minute hinges and silvery coating.
“What are you made of?”
“Substance DX-9. The material is flexible, as you see,” the Ambassador clenched his fist, then opened it and wiggled his fingers, “but it instantly hardens into armor plate on impact. The material is synthesized by mixing a viscous fluid with molten molybdenum. The mixture is poured into a mould and allowed to cool.
“Under normal conditions, DX-9 molecules are weakly bound and the material is flexible, but the shock of sudden deformation causes the molecules to lock, rendering the material into a solid protective shield. The hardening effect lasts only for the duration of impact.”
Senator Steele shook his head, trying to grasp what the Ambassador was telling him, trying to fathom the implications.
“Mr. Ambassador, when we received your reply to our broadcast, our scientific teams determined the wave pattern emanated from the general direction of the Alpha Centauri system, some four light-years from Earth.”
“That is correct.”
“Our orbiting telescopes were able to detect light from a previously unknown planet in orbit around Proxima, the closest star in the system. This newly discovered planet was the apparent source of the signal.”
“Also correct. That is our home planet.”
“We named this new planet Omega,” the Senator added, apologetically.
“Your speech organs are not designed to produce the sounds which constitute the actual name of our planet. Omega will do.”
“You are most kind, Mr. Ambassador. May I continue?”
“Further reports from our scientific teams, who studied your planet from this great distance, indicate that Omega is, basically, a frozen rock with no atmosphere, highly unsuitable even for robot... existence.”
“Correct again. Surface conditions on Omega are not conducive to smooth robotic functioning. The surface temperature is -220 degrees Centigrade and causes our joints to freeze and our lubricants to congeal. Only specially designed industrial, mining, and defense units are capable of operating on the surface.
“Our standard civilian models occupy fifty levels of artificial caverns excavated beneath the surface and connected by a matrix of tunnels. The interior of the planet is warmed by its magma core, creating a suitable subterranean temperature range, and the frozen crust provides superior insulation. Our subsurface generators maintain an artificial interior atmosphere of 18% oxygen in those areas designated for use by the biped mammals and other remnant life forms.”
The Ambassador paused and continued, changing the subject, “Senator, one goal of our visit is to open trade negotiations with your governments. We are interested in proposing open borders between our planets and in instituting free trade agreements for the exchange of natural resources and manufactured goods. Our robotic manufacturing capability is highly advanced, but Omega, as you call it, has been depleted of mineral resources during the course of the past several millenia.
“For example, one of our primary needs is molybdenum. Our units require periodic application of powdered molybdenum to restore and maintain our DX-9 surface coating. The soil of Omega was once rich in pure molybdenite and our methods of unit manufacture and maintenance developed along lines requiring constant supply of this once abundant resource.
“Through the centuries, unregulated mining, exploitation, and simple waste and squandering of the resource depleted the supply. Our scientific community has put top priority on developing synthetic molybdenum or a suitable alternative, but the costs are prohibitive and, for now, we are forced to rely on importing the element from outside sources. It is, of course, found in your solar system, on your planet and moon, for example, and we are prepared to offer most lucrative terms and conditions for the licensing of export molybdenum to Omega.”
The Senator nodded, taking all of this in. It struck him that the Omegan need for molybdenum could represent a tremendous opportunity. Unless he was seriously mistaken, the market price of molybdenum was about to go through the roof. It was a simple case of supply and demand.
In healthy competition with the U.S. military, currently the prime buyer, the Omegans would now bid the price up. Free market forces would come into play and Amalgated Mining stood to reap windfall profits in the trillions of dollars. Steele’s heart began to race but, with the expertise of an experienced negotiator, he masked his excitement.
“I think,” said Senator Steele to the Omegan Ambassador, “we can do business.”
The Senator extended his hand and the Ambassador took it in his own. The Ambassador’s silver fingers were smooth and soft but a hard framework could be felt underneath the thin layer of soft material. The Ambassador’s facial screen was impassive but the Senator thought he saw (or did he imagine it?) a flickering sparkle from the Omegan’s red eyes.
Later that night, after the reception, Senator Steele boarded a private jet which a former colleague on the Armed Services Committee, who had returned to private life and currently represented the interests of the molybdenum mining industry, had been kind enough to make available for his occasional use.
The small jet took off from Reagan Airport and flew west, towards Las Vegas, where the Senator intended to take a brief respite from the responsibilities of office. He found the slot machines extremely relaxing. It was the only thing in life that could really take his mind, however briefly, off the huge pressures and stress of government. And that respite was necessary, from time to time, to stave off complete exhaustion and refresh the mind and body for its renewed struggle with the forces of evil abroad in our dangerous world.
In the circular driveway before the towering hotel casino, the smiling valet opened the door of the sleek black late model town car with polarized windows and U.S. government plates.
Copyright © 2006 by Bill Bowler