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The Unanswered Question

by Gary Inbinder

part 1 of 3

  1. The world has a beginning in time, and is also limited as regards space.
  2. The world has no beginning, and no limits in space; it is infinite as regards both time and space.

— Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

Bud Hicks pondered Kant’s antinomy while sitting on the crapper at the World Federation Military Academy. He sniggered and scribbled a toilet-stall graffito: The cosmos, like this toilet bowl, had a beginning in time, and it is also limited as regards space. Therefore, next time you take a dump, flush it! — E. Manual Cant Get It Up.

Bud laughed and then reflected. He was already in trouble for both grades and deportment; his joke might cost him one hundred demerits. Prudence trumped creativity. Bud wiped the graffito from the wall, and then wiped his butt with the same paper. He flushed his nugget of wisdom down the drain.

Five years out of the Academy, Senior Lieutenant Bud Hicks huddled in the cramped cabin of a landing craft with his platoon as they made their final descent onto Pluto. Dank as a lunar mineshaft, the cabin vibrated like the massage-o-mattress in a cheap space-motel. A grim grin cracked Bud’s war-face. He glanced at his warriors through his blast resistant in-helmet viddy-screen.

Each warrior sat cocooned in his or her own warm, oxygen-rich assault suit and helmet. The high command anticipated that the enemy surface batteries would kill or cripple fifteen percent of the descending craft.

Moreover, among those in the first wave who made it onto Pluto another twenty percent would be dead or wounded within the first hour. The casualties among platoon leaders tended to be higher than average. More crap down the black hole, Bud thought.

Bud recalled reading about commanders in earlier wars who had urged their men over the top. “Come on, guys, do you want to live forever?” His platoon of Space Marines required no pre-battle pep talk: they lived on the razor’s edge, and to them, combat was better than drugs or sex.

On this descent, Bud missed the anticipated flack-burst frisson. He buzzed his First Sergeant’s helmet transmitter, “Hey, Top Dog, this sleigh ride’s boring. I’m afraid it’s gonna put the boys and girls to sleep.”

“Yes, sir, I can barely keep my eyes open. Maybe the aliens have a surprise for us when we hit the beach?”

“I love surprises. Are you ready to rumble?”

“Aye-aye, sir! Lock and load. Hoo-ahh!”

Bud laughed quietly to himself. Warriors taunt death.

The landing craft set down on Pluto without taking so much as a hit from an alien spitball. Bud double-timed his platoon down the landing ramp and onto the barren, rocky surface. Searchlights blazed and the Space Marines deployed. Bud reported to his company commander via his in-helmet transmitter, “First Platoon landed, sir. All present and accounted for, no casualties and no enemy contact.”

Bud’s earpiece crackled, “Roger, lieutenant. You have the point. Advance to coordinates 916728.”

Bud switched on his glowing green in-helmet map and ordered his platoon forward. Two combat ‘droids walked point and swept for land mines. Their trek across Pluto’s surface was like journeying through hell, if you conceive of the netherworld as a dark, frigid, eternal void. The platoon did not know what demons lurked in the shadows. They followed their leader without question or hesitation, confident they could handle anything that the aliens would throw against them.

The sighting of aliens on Pluto had occurred three months earlier. The first encounter with intelligent beings from another planet had raised great excitement on Earth, much of it enthusiastic. The World Federation attempted peaceful contact, without results.

When diplomatic approaches failed, the more aggressive member nations demanded action, which led to an ultimatum: This is our solar system and Pluto is our turf. Make your intentions known or vacate immediately. Noncompliance will lead to serious consequences.

The aliens remained obstinately silent. The World Federation passed a defense resolution, a battle fleet assembled, and two divisions of Space Marines formed the vanguard of a Federation army headed for Pluto.

Bud’s platoon reached its coordinates, and he reported to the company commander, “We have arrived at our objective and still no sign of the enemy, sir.”

“Well, Hicks, it looks like those little green suckers wised up and bugged out. Set up a defensive perimeter. I want a staff meeting of all platoon leaders at 0:300.”

* * *

“Observe the aggressive nature of these Earth creatures, Tweed-el. We land on a worthless lump of matter in the farthest corner of their solar system, and they instinctively attack to drive us away, or destroy us.”

“Yes, Twad-el, but they did attempt a friendly approach, at first.”

“Do not be fooled, Tweed-el. The Earth creatures are ignorant brutes, but their leaders are sly. Their pathetic attempt at diplomacy was merely a ruse, to disguise their true intentions.”

Tweed-el waggled his eyestalk in agreement. “I understand, Twad-el.” Tweed-el and Twad-el floated in an invisible liquid dodecahedron about one click to the north-west, and directly above, the Platoon’s defensive perimeter. They spotted Bud Hicks giving orders to Top Dog before Hicks headed to the company command post for the captain’s briefing.

Twad-el’s twelve pupils focused on Bud. “That one will do nicely for our experiment, Tweed-el. I have just scanned his primitive brain thoroughly and it contains the requisite data within its memory bank. He will be our messenger, the chosen one.”

“I agree. I will see to it that he discovers the orb.”

“Very well, Tweed-el. Carry on.”

* * *

“Listen up, gentlemen. Our first-wave combat units are in place, and we will continue to secure and hold our sectors until the Army relieves us. Pluto is ours and the aliens have buggered off to the cosmic stink-hole from whence they came.” Captain Kerensky grinned, “Gentlemen, you may cheer.”

“Hoo-ahh, Hoo-ahh, Hoo-ahh!”

“Hicks,” Captain Kerensky barked at his senior lieutenant.

“Yes, sir.”

“You have the first patrol. I want your squads to sweep the coordinates one-click north and northwest of the perimeter. If you find anything, you know our rules of engagement.”

“Yes, sir, blast ‘em into a black hole, sir.”

The other platoon leaders shouted, “Hoo-ahh!”

Captain Kerensky grimaced. “Gentleman, you may be taking an overly-narrow view of our mission. I would expect you to seek out and destroy the enemy. However, you must also consider each particular situation and the opportunities that might present themselves. For example, some aliens may be hiding and wish to surrender. On the other hand, you may encounter abandoned enemy materiel that would require special handling. Capturing a prisoner or taking enemy plans or equipment could provide valuable intelligence.”

“Sorry, sir, I was thinking in terms of our primary mission, alien eradication; the big picture. Delenda est Carthago.” Bud stared at his captain. His reply was impertinent, although accurate, and he had an anxious moment until the captain’s grimace warmed to a fatherly smile.

“Yes, gentleman, we must always keep the big picture in mind, but we must never lose sight of the forest for the trees.”

The platoon leaders contemplated their captain with glassy-eyed incomprehension. Kerensky’s metaphors seemed garbled somehow. Bud Hicks shared his comrades bewilderment, but he squelched doubt with a fervent, “Sir, yes sir!”

* * *

“Sir, I’ve found something.” A squad leader on patrol reported to Bud Hicks.

“What have you got, Kirby?”

“I don’t know, sir. It looks kind of like a big, golden soccer ball. It could be an explosive device.”

“Keep your squad well clear of it. I’m calling company to send up the IED demolition team and the HAZMAT ’bots.”

Bud joined Kirby’s squad and they squatted behind blast shields while two ’bots examined the unidentified object. After about fifteen minutes of diagnostic tests, the first ’bot transmitted to Hicks, “The object appears harmless, sir. We believe the aliens left it to convey a message. It is emitting an unusual but innocuous signal. I find the sound pleasant. Would you like to hear it?”

“Yeah, D-2, loop me in.” The robot plugged the orb’s signal into the transmitter, and Bud heard music, a haunting, persistent trumpet solo that seemed to question an orchestra of tremulous, uncertain strings. “Good job, D-2. Let’s report back to the captain.”

* * *

Captain Kerensky passed the object to battalion, and from there it went up the chain of command to WOFACPLU — World Federation Allied Command Pluto — where a team of specialists examined it aboard the Admiral’s flagship, Victory.

Bud Hicks had recognized the music emitting from the alien orb as the trumpet solo from Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” The aliens had intercepted a Voyager Space Probe and used the information provided therein to enter our solar system. They also used Voyager’s information to produce an easily decodable message and left it on Pluto.

WOFACPLU summoned Bud Hicks to appear before a panel aboard the flagship. The young Senior Lieutenant was about to be offered the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Lieutenant Hicks, you have been chosen from among the finest young officers in all branches of the service to undertake one of the greatest adventures in history.” Trans-human Cybernetic Admiral Horatia Nelson transfixed Bud with her flashing, robotic sapphire-eyed gaze. “Of course, this assignment is highly dangerous and voluntary. You are free to refuse.”

Bud answered without much thought, “I gratefully accept, Admiral.”

Nelson’s lips twitched in the semblance of a smile. “Of course, Lieutenant — or I should say, Captain Hicks. This assignment carries with it immediate promotion and, upon successful completion, you will receive higher rank and a suitable decoration. Moreover, if you do not return alive your place in history will be secured, and your survivors will be paid a generous death benefit.”

The job was risky but promised great reward, and Bud loved danger. The orb contained a device that the aliens claimed could transport an Earthling to the alien planet. The aliens failed to provide the location of their world, except for a vague reference to the Deneb constellation.

The WOFACPLU scientists had not a clue as to whether or not the device would work, nor did they know what it might do to a human being. They would have preferred transporting an android first, but the aliens specified a human.

High command decided to proceed with the experiment, but they did not want to waste a high-level ambassador. Bud was expendable. What the high command did not know was that the aliens had already used telepathic mind control to influence their selection. Bud was the chosen one.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by Gary Inbinder

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