ELUL 22, 5820
TORUS, SECTOR 47065, DATUM 91366
I hate waiting.
We arrived at Target Bravo on Thursday. Not that it mattered which day it was; we had no morning meetings, no calls to take, no lunch dates to keep. The days had blurred into one long stretch of boredom, interrupted only by the Tank. And I was even starting to get used to that.
I had hoped our second stop would be more interesting than the first. I was also getting used to disappointment.
Target Bravo was small by cometary standards, but eight thousand square kilometers is still a lot of surface area to cover on foot. If you think what you're looking for might be buried inside the comet, as we did, that's another sixty-five thousand cubic kilometers to look at. Add to that the mist evaporating off the sunward surfaces and the non-trivial possibility of explosive outgassing, and a spacewalk becomes very unattractive.
Marvin insisted that he could make a safe landing, or at least bring us close enough to scoop up an ice sample, but Peter decreed a more conservative flight plan: two spirals around the comet, following perpendicular axes of rotation, and then spot checks of anything that looked unusual.
As it turned out, there were lots of anomalies.
"That's not water."
"Not methane, either."
"Mark it. No, Randall, I don't want to know what number we're up to."
I got tired of the routine long before Randall did. Sure, the comet was pretty, but it didn't look much different from any angle. It was a big ball of ice. Forgive me for being a science Philistine, but I just don't find false-color images that interesting.
So I was actually thankful when, after the hundredth mind-numbing card game with Lynn and Erika and Peter, Erika asked me to go outside with her for target practice.
"I wasn't sure you'd come," she said as the airlock closed behind us.
I turned toward Erika and handed her the weapons case. "Because I hate these things?"
She took the case and gave me a confused look. "Pressure suits?"
"Firearms." I clamped the box of targets to the hull.
"But you were a police officer."
"And how many hours a night do you spend watching the vid?"
Erika opened the case and began assembling the parabellum. "You're saying police don't like guns?"
"I know detectives who never once drew their weapons in the field during their careers, and are damn proud of that fact. Police do not enjoy risking their lives any more than you do.
"Firearms provoke people. The minute the guns come out, there's a very good chance that someone will die. What you're holding in your hands is a tool designed to kill. A tool of murder. Any other use is secondary."
Erika held the parabellum in one hand, the magazine in the other. She looked from one to the other slowly.
"Police are not reckless," I said. "Their job is to keep the peace -- to stop crime, not promote it. They work for the government; they answer to the people. Just like us."
She nodded. She seemed distracted.
"Downrange." I pointed toward the comet's tail.
I tossed six target disks, one after the other. She fired ten times and hit nothing.
"Hold your arm steady," I said. "The weapon isn't going to move; the recoil suppressor takes care of that. Just hold it still."
I launched six more targets. She emptied the magazine and hit nothing.
"Safe," I said. "Let's try a stationary target."
"I can't believe this."
I studied her face for a moment. I had misjudged her. I had thought she would be loath to handle the gun, but she didn't see it as an evil thing. She saw a tool like any other, a mechanical device made of steel and aluminum and plastic -- levers, springs, rods, casings. Engineering. Just another gadget.
"I was doing pretty well at Paperless," she said, pushing a new magazine into the weapon. "Wasn't I?"
"Different environment." I pulled a collapsible bulls-eye from the side of the case. "You'll get used to it."
"I doubt that. It's so empty out here."
I followed her gaze up, away from the ship and the comet, toward the outer edge of the Solar System. The stars were faint, almost invisible against the deep, deep black.
"That's why they call it a void." I walked to the aft portion of Gary's hull. "Safed?"
"Safed." The gun fell to her side.
"This'll just take a minute."
"But even this void is not entirely empty." She gestured with her free hand. "Stars, planets, asteroids. Interstellar hydrogen. Spaceships. Aliens, maybe."
I unfolded the target and fitted the magnetic clamps against the hull. "Yeah, who knows?"
"Do you wonder about our mission? Why U.N.I.A. wants to find these aliens -- if they exist, of course."
"Are you kidding? It's first contact. People have been dreaming about this for centuries."
"I think pure science is not the real reason. Othello is noble, but he can't afford to be charitable. Don't you wonder how he got the Director to approve this mission?"
"With a lot of difficulty."
She held up the gun and tapped it with one finger. "What is this idea?"
"The idea. The concept made real by this gun. What is it?"
"No, more basic than that. Not the effect, the device. What is it?"
"Is this payback my for earlier lecture?"
"Okay, okay. I'm thinking."
I looked at the gun, imagining its interior. The trigger pulls back the hammer, the notch moves past the ratchet, the hammer falls, the powder detonates, the pellet is propelled forward through the barrel...
"It's a projectile launcher," I said, almost smiling at my simple revelation.
"Yes! A high-velocity demonstration of Newton's Third Law, action and reaction. The same principle we use to propel spacecraft. To walk along the ground, in fact."
"That's a bit of an oversimplification."
"But you see my point."
"Oh, of course. And what is your point?"
"You're not even trying, Natty. Let me see. Okay, assume that these aliens -- the 'Frogs' -- do exist."
"What do we know of their technology? Fast cloning, mere weeks to grow an adult human, right? A time compression field of some sort. And very efficient propulsion to accelerate their ship to a significant fraction of light-speed."
"The time compression field could account for all three."
"That in itself would be breakthrough technology. We can't imagine constructing such a device. We don't even have the math to describe it."
"What does any of this have to do with firearms?"
"Natty, can you tell me one new technology in human history which has not had a military application -- which has not been used in some way to create or promote a weapon?"
"Is this supposed to shock me?"
"This doesn't bother you? Not a little bit?"
"Erika, for every atomic bomb ever used in war, there have been a hundred nuclear power plants providing cheap, clean electrical power to the world. I shouldn't have to tell you this. Technology is a tool. Just like that gun. It doesn't kill anyone unless you aim it and pull the trigger."
"But we're in a war now. You said it yourself -- when the guns come out, people are likely to be killed."
I suddenly thought of my sister, Sarah. I remembered an argument we had once, years ago. It was late afternoon, after school, and I had been making dinner. She came home from band practice and we started fighting, as siblings do.
I don't even remember what we fought about. But I remember the look on her face when I turned, shouting at her and brandishing a kitchen knife. Not on purpose -- my hand had just tightened around the knife, a reaction to stress.
I saw fear in her eyes. Then I saw the fear harden into something else before I realized what I was doing and put the knife back down. I didn't think much of it at the time, but I remembered.
"So you're afraid that if these Frogs do exist, and we find them, U.N.I.A. will interrogate them and dissect their spacecraft for military gain instead of scientific."
"I'm afraid we won't be able to stop such an atrocity."
"We're accountable, Erika. All of us, all of the U.N., even the Names. In the end, we'll have to answer to the entire world for our actions."
"Sometimes people forget that. It only takes a moment to make a mistake which can't be corrected."
"Then we'll have to make sure they never forget."
Copyright © 2002 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.