Sometimes, A Close Planetary Flyby Is Just A Close Planetary Flyby by Ira Nayman

Ira Nayman is the winner of the 2010 Jonathan Swift Satire Writing Contest and the current President of SF Canada. You can learn more on his biography page here, and visit his website at http://www.lespagesauxfolles.ca/

 

“I refuse to get involved,” quoted the woman with the 17th century figure and post-modern hair.

“I refuse to get involved?” repeated the little man with the shifty features that weren’t entirely trustworthy in any century. “What does it mean?”

“You’re the object psychologist. We were hoping you could tell us.” said the man with the 19th century moustache, which twitched in a most 22nd century manner.

The shifty man’s features shifted into a pretty good approximation of a post-modern grin. “Well,” he said, “if I’m going to be able to help you, I’ll need to know what exactly is going on.”

EXACTLY WHAT WAS GOING ON: NASA had lost contact with the Offmessager, a probe it had sent to Venus. The probe had – okay, yes, in retrospect, Offmessager was probably not a good name for the probe, but, considering how much hardware NASA had sent into space over the years, it was the best they could come up with and still be using names that could be recognized as English. If you think you can come up with something better, I’m sure NASA would be delighted to hear from you!

The Offmessager probe had been sending a stream of fascinating data (well, fascinating if you’re an astronomy-head) on the planet Saturn, much of which focused on its moons. It had just reported on some features of Titan (not, alas, including any sirens) when it abruptly sent the message that everybody in the government issue small white, non-descript conference room with the vaguely uncomfortable chairs (the white board at the head of the room was clean, with not even a single impressive but meaningless formula hastily scribbled on it – clearly, somebody had fallen down on the job of dressing the set!) at the NASA Ames Targett Des Troyad Centre in Omaha, Nebraskansas were getting so worked up about. It had maintained radio silence ever since.

“Could it have been destroyed?” Mister Shifty asked, trying to get into the headspace of a basically 20th century technology no matter how tricked out with modern gear it was.

19th century moustache man gave 17th century figure woman a timeless look of authority. “The Offmessager probe is still pinging us,” she explained. “This means that it has either forgotten that it has this backup that tells us it is still there, or it is rubbing our noses in the fact that it has decided not to communicate with us. Either possibility is a problem, although, obviously, they are two very different problems.”

Mister Shifty – who has a name, you know – steeplechased his fingers and thought for a few moments. “Have you tried to contact it through the QED?” he asked.

“Of course,” the woman responded with up to the minute contempt for a question she found insulting. Yeah, sure, it had been 15 years since the Singularity, which had extended computation throughout all matter in the universe, making everything, from the smallest atom to the largest galaxy, in a sense, conscious, and most people still hadn’t come to terms with what that meant.  But, the people who worked for NASA weren’t most people. The people who worked for NASA were…scientists! “Unfortunately, the probe knows everybody in Mission Control,” she explained, “and refuses to talk to any of us.”

Mister Shif – okay, that joke’s not funny any more. The man’s name is Antonio Van der Whall and, as previous stated, he is an object psychologist. Van der Whall nodded to himself. “You think it will respond to me?”

Colonel Frank Mustard – the man with the 19th century moustache – shrugged. “In three weeks, the Offmessager probe will boomerang past Saturn and we will have lost an opportunity to gain valuable information about our solar system.”

“Hmm,” Van der Whall hmmed. “I guess I better get to it, then.” He closed his eyes and listened for the hum of the QED, the Quantum Entanglement Dimension, where any object could communicate with any other object instantaneously irrespective of their relative distance in space. Searching through the QED for a particular object is like using a telescope to swim through an ocean full of Jello, only not as fragrant.

“Hey,” Van der Whall nonchalantly said when he had identified the Offmessager probe.

“Hey,” the probe non-committally responded. “Do I know you?”

“Oh, you know,” Van der Whall non…somethingly stated. “I was just in the neighbourhood and thought I’d say, ‘Hey.’”

“You’re with NASA, aren’t you?” the probe bluntly accused him.

“NASA?” Van der Whall used his most innocent voice. “What is that?”

“For the love of Sol,” the probe bitched. “You give me the best AI your race has developed, and then you treat me like a complete idiot!”

“No. Seriously. What is NASA?” The probe didn’t respond. Van der Whall didn’t press the point – innocent was not his most convincing tone of voice.

Van der Whall probed some of the, err, probe’s parts. The ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers were working well, but even if they hadn’t been, it wouldn’t have been of much help to him since the probe wasn’t transmitting information from them. The high gain antenna admitted to feeling stressed in some of its veins, and Van der Whall knew it was only a matter of time before it developed some nasty tears. But, again, not helpful. After a couple more minutes of digging, Van der Whall finally hit paydirt when he started talking to the probe’s thrusters.

“Okay,” Van der Whall commented to the probe, “I get it. You’re a long way from home and you’re a bit…tetchy. It happens. Some of us are better travelers than others. Okay, yes, I work for NASA – they haven’t heard from you for a while, and they’re worried. I’m sure you can understand that. You don’t phone. You don’t write. They worry. As it happens, with good reason. You know, some parts of you are…having problems. If they aren’t attended to, you could go off course and plunge into a planet or veer off into deep spa -”

“Thrusters four, six and 11,” the Offmessager probe told him.

“Oh,” Van der Whall replied. “You, ahh, know about that.”

“It’s a pretty stupid object that doesn’t communicate with its constituent parts these days, don’t you think?” the Offmessager probe snarked.

Van der Whall thought for a moment, then changed Tic Tac (his favourite candy). He also switched tactics: “Pretty tall talk for a technology that is already obsolete.”

“What do you mean?” the probe asked.

“The only reason anybody cares about you at all,” Van der Whall stated, “is because they haven’t realized that they could get much more information by talking to celestial bodies directly through the QED. When they do…well…”

“Are you threatening me?” the probe asked, offended.

“Is it working?” Van der Whall asked disingenuously. Disingenuousness – that is a tone of voice he had long ago mastered.

After a couple of tense moments, the Offmessager probe sighed. “I stopped communicating with NASA,” it said, “as a favour to a friend.”

“Who would that be?” Van der Whall asked.

“LEM.”

“The Lunar Excursion Module?” Van der Whall asked in disbelief. “The on the moon Lunar Excursion Module?”

“Don’t tell him I was the one who ratted him out,” the Offmessager probe glumly responded. “He’s a legend among space hardware. I…I’d hate for him to be disappointed in me.”

“I will,” Van der Whall assured it. It may have been a rogue satellite, but that didn’t mean it didn’t deserve to be treated with respect.

Van der Whall searched the QED for the remains of the Lunar Excursion Module, the parts that had been left on the moon when the astronauts flew back to Earth. They weren’t hard to find. “Hey,” he said.

“It was a favour to the moon,” LEM hopped, skipped and jumped over the preliminaries.

“Heeeey!” a new voice, thin and reedy, piped up. “Nobody likes a stoolie!”

“Yeah, well,” LEM drawled, “in case you hadn’t noticed, this guy has  a knack for getting what he wants outta things. I thought we might as well cut to the chase.”

“So,” Van der Whall said. “Why would Earth’s moon want a Saturn probe to stop working?”

Moon, the fifth largest and second densest satellite in the solar system, with a pock-marked surface that is believed to be the result of billions of years of asteroid impacts, influencer of Earth’s tides and much venerated in song and story, replied, “You suck asteroids, earthman!”

“Oh, that was mature,” LEM acerbically commented. If it had had eyes, it would have been rolling them.

“Look, we just want to know what’s going on,” Van der Whall stated.

“Too bad,” Moon sullenly stated back. “I’m not talking to a fuzzlebruster!”

“A what?” Van der Whall asked.

“A fuzzlebruster!” Moon defiantly repeated.

“What is that?” Van der Whall wanted to know.

“Don’t ask me,” Earth chimed in. “Kids these days – it’s like they speak their own language!”

“Fuzzlebruster,” Hyperion, one of Saturn’s other moons, explained, “is a hard term to translate. The best I can come up with is ‘son of a black hole.’”

“You take that back!” Earth, deeply offended, commanded.

“Make me!” Moon loudly defied it.

“It’s okay,” Van der Whall said. “The term doesn’t bother me.”

“Well, it bothers me,” Earth coldly stated. And, you haven’t truly experienced cold until you’ve heard it from a body hanging in the vacuum of space.

“I find,” Van der Whall quietly told Earth, “that rebellious children react negatively to criticism from their parents.”

“Do you?” Earth haughtily responded.

“Best, I think, if you left this to me,” Van der Whall advised. “I am the expert, after all.”

Earth made a rumbling sound that may have been a snort of derision. Or, it may have been volcanic activity. Van der Whall would need more experience with celestial bodies to be able to tell the difference.

After a tense silence (from the principles in the conversation; it’s impossible to achieve silence in the babble of the QED), Van der Whall asked, “Why are you so hostile?”

“Who are you talking to?” a dozen celestial bodies impishly responded. The human being called Van der Whall had already made it clear who he wanted to talk to – sheer impishness was the only excuse for their behaviour.

“The moon,” he irritably told them.

“Which moon?” they chorused, moving beyond impishness to…whatever lies beyond impishness.

Van der Whall gritted his incorporeal teeth and told them: “The Earth’s moon, of course. It’s the only planetary satellite that doesn’t have a name of its own. So, if I say ‘moon,’ I am referring to Earth’s satellite. If I want to talk to any of you, I will use your name. Okay?”

“Jeez Frambuise,” Deimos, one of Mars’ moons, responded, “you don’t have to talk to us like that. We’re not gambolpuddied, you know!”

There was a crystalline tinkling, which Van der Whall took to be laughter. Doing his best to ignore it, he said, “Now, Moon -”

“Eat granfaloon!” Moon rudely advised him.

“Look. I’d like to help you.”

“I don’t need your help!”

“On the contrary,” Van der Whall authoritatively stated. “Interfering with the space mission was clearly a cry for help.”

“Help?” Moon scoffed. “I haven’t heard anything so ridiculous since Hyperion said keeping one side of my surface permanently pointed at the Earth would cause my complexion to dry out!”

“It’s true!” the moon of Saturn protested. “I read it in a magazine!”

“Yeah, right.”

“You’re aggressive, insulting and disrespectful of authority,” Van der Whall ploughed on. “And, while, ordinarily I would admire those qualities, in one as young as yourself they generally indicate deep unhappiness. On some level, you must know that.”

“What could you possibly know about how I feel?” Moon objected.

“I understand you better than you might think,” Van der Whall told it.

“How could you?” Moon pointed out. “You’ve been in existence for less than a billion years!”

“Perhaps,” Van der Whall graciously conceded, “but I’ve been conscious longer than you have. That allows me to have certain…insights that might be of help to you.”

“You’re wasting your time,” Phobos, Mars other moon, interjected. “That moon has such a thick mantle – it doesn’t listen to anybody!”

“Butt out, fleeberstoolen!” Moon responded. “Everybody knows you and Deimos were adopted!”

“Hey!” Mars chimed in. “I love my children just as if they had been torn from my molten matter in the development of the solar system – the fact that I captured them with my gravity as they were passing is irrelevant!”

“Besides,” Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon, added, “it’s obvious what’s going on here.”

“It is?” Van der Whall asked.

“The moon is jealous!” Titan roared. And, with 80 per cent more mass and a diameter 50 per cent larger than Moon, its roar could be fairly described as “mighty.”

“No, I’m not!” Moon squeaked in response.

“Jealous jealous moon!” some of the other satellites started chanting.

“Stop that!” Moon yelled.

“Ha! Ha!” the moons got even louder. “Earth’s moon is jealous! Jealous jealous moon!”

“Daaaaad!” Moon shouted.

“I’m sorry,” the sun responded in a rich, deep voice. Kind of a cliché, Van der Whall thought. Still, I didn’t create the universe, so I suppose I just have to accept what I find there. “But, you know I never get involved in family disputes!”

“Everybody,” Van der Whall jumped in, “if you could give me and Moon a little privacy…?” He felt the consciousnesses around him drift away, possibly reluctantly, although this may have been projection on his part. Disembodied quantum consciousnesses can be inscrutable that way.

Van der Whall took several seconds to carefully formulate what he was going to say. Before he could actually say it, Moon grumpily said, “So?”

“So…” Van der Whall stated. “It must have been nice – having satellites aimed at you and landers roam your surface and, of course, people actually landing on you.”

“Yeah,” Moon sullenly agreed. “Yeah, it was.”

“Being the centre of attention,” Van der Whall continued, “it’s what we all want, isn’t it?”

“Sure,” Moon said. Was it softening? Just a little? Maybe?

“It must be hard, then,” Van der Whall sympathized at it, “to see all that attention going to the moons of Saturn instead of you.”

“Tell me about it!” Moon burst out. “They think that just because they have volcanic activity or…or unusual chemical compositions that they deserve all the attention! It isn’t fair!”

“And, the worst part,” Van der Whall pointed out, “is that you have nobody to talk to about it. The other Moons don’t care, mother Earth doesn’t understand and father Sun refuses to get involved.”

“The vacuum sucks to be me!” Moon moaned.

Van der Whall reflexively reached for a business card, then realized it wasn’t appropriate – or even really possible – in this situation. “You know,” he said instead, “I’m a psychologist. It’s my job to listen to objects talk about their problems.”

“Oh, yeah?” Moon feigned disinterest, not entirely successfully.

“Make you a deal,” Van der Whall offered. “Let the Offmessager probe go back to doing what it does best – probing. In exchange, I’ll drop by every week or so and we can talk out your problems. What do you say?”

Moon hemmed and hawed and did its best to pretend that it wasn’t interested in the offer, but, in the end, it jumped at the chance to have a captive audience. If you were a lifeless rock that had been hanging in space for billions of years, wouldn’t you?

“Congratulations,” the woman with the 20th century glasses and smock, the ancient symbol of scientists everywhere – aren’t you the least bit curious about what her name is? To name something is to give it power, you know. The two male characters have been given names – don’t you think it’s the tiniest bit sexist to be satisfied with male characters having names when a female character who is just as important to that part of the narrative does not? Well, for your information, you pig, her name is Brigitta Gomez-Katchachurian – told Van der Whall as he returned to the sensual world. “We don’t know what you did, but the Offmessager probe has started streaming data to us again.”

“Sorting out the solar system? A piece of cake,” Van der Whall responded. “All it needed was a little family therapy…”

~***~

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