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Attachment

by

Rachel Howe

 

The message reached Seaview in the middle of the afternoon, a day out from Santa Barbara. The Communications Officer -- universally known as "Sparks" -- preoccupied with the failure of the submarine's main computer, printed it out, slipped it into an appropriately labelled folder and handed it over for delivery without more than glancing at the headers.

"This message just came for you, sir. It's -- uh, marked 'Personal.'"

"What? Oh -- thanks, Kowalski. Just put it on the desk." Admiral Nelson looked up from his work for a moment, and gave the crewman a perfunctory nod. Fifty-seven point three eight degrees north, twenty-nine point eight seven degrees west, angle of inclination to the zenith . . . What's he still doing here? "That'll be all, Kowalski."

"Aye, sir." The crewman left, closing the cabin door gently behind him.

Angle of inclination . . . twenty-four point seven nine degrees. No, that won't do it. With a firm stroke of his pen, Nelson crossed another option off his dwindling list. One of these islands has to be the one -- but which? This would be so much easier if the computer wasn't out of action.

It took him nearly another hour to find the answer; a launch from the secondary launch site on Little Bird Island, a day's sailing away from Seaview's position, would put the test probe into the necessary orbit. And then, maybe we'll start getting some answers. Satisfied, Nelson took a gulp of cold coffee, then scribbled the co-ordinates on a memo slip and headed for the Control Room. It was only when he returned to his cabin half an hour later, with a fresh pot of coffee and a plate of sandwiches, that he remembered the message still lying on the desk. Idly, he opened the buff folder and looked at the first page.

Dear Harry,
I thought you might be interested in this.
Love,
Edith

That much was intelligible enough, if not very informative. The rest -- sixteen closely-printed pages of it -- was gibberish, without even spaces to break up the stream of apparently random letters and numbers. Really, it's time my little sister settled down and learned some common sense. Not a word in three weeks, and then this . . . nonsense. As if I didn't have enough to worry about. He puzzled over it as he ate, with a deepening frown. It had to be some kind of code, but it was no kind of cipher he recognized. What was worse, he could not imagine why his sister, who the last time he heard from her had been enjoying the party season in Boston, would be sending him a coded message in the first place. If she was in some kind of trouble . . . if she was in trouble, her problems would have to wait. Until the probe provided some data on those mysterious new objects that had appeared in Earth orbit in the last week, no-one with any knowledge of the extraterrestrial threat was going to be free to deal with personal matters. On the other hand, with the launch co-ordinates calculated and Seaview on her way, there was nothing to stop him taking a little time to at least decipher the message. It can't be that sophisticated. He copied out the first few lines and studied them until the letters blurred out of focus, hoping to spot some pattern, but there was nothing. Eventually, he threw down his pencil in disgust. How much longer are they going to be with that computer, anyway? Tucking the folder under his arm, he hurried back to the Control Room.

"Sparks? What's the status of the computer?"

The radio operator looked up from the message he was transcribing. "It doesn't look good, sir. The tech support people finally called back, and it sounds like we're going to have to dismantle the whole core to get at the blown memory element. It could take days, and if we make a mistake we could make the damage worse. They advise bringing the whole unit in for repair."

"Well, that's out of the question at present, and we don't have days. We'd better get started."

"Aye, sir." Sparks laid down his headphones and reached for a tool-kit.

Three hours later, the Captain came on watch to find a sizeable area of the Control Room floor covered in the dismantled innards of the computer, with the Admiral and Sparks crouched in the middle of the mess. Absorbed in his work, Nelson responded to the Captain's questions with an absent grunt.

Oh, and by the way, sir, there's a school of mermaids off the port bow and we're on a collision course with a flying saucer. Crane did not say it aloud -- someone in the Control Room might have been paying attention even if the Admiral was not -- but he was tempted. Shaking his head, he went to take up his post. From time to time he glanced over to see how the work was going. The pile of discarded circuit boards grew steadily, and within the gutted cabinet the shape of the memory core, with its intricate diamond lattice of magnets and wires, began to emerge out of the shrouds of surrounding circuitry. Well into the night, the Admiral finally reached in and pulled out the first flat, square frame of the memory array.

"Well, there's no problem with this that I can see," he pronounced, holding it up to the light. "Let's have the next one."

Sparks delved into the interior of the machine and brought out another frame. "This one looks AOK too, sir."

"Two down, fourteen to go." Nelson sighed, massaging the back of his neck, and looked again at the schematic.

The sixth array had a small scorched patch just off-centre, and one of the tiny magnets flopping loose from its moorings.

"Is that it?" Crane asked, coming over to see. It did not look like enough damage to have caused so much disruption.

"I hope so." Nelson studied the damaged array for a moment longer, then laid it down. "We'd better check the others, though -- just to be sure. How many spares do we have?

"Two, sir." Sparks frowned. "And I don't like the look of this."

"Neither do I." Nelson pulled out the next array. "Well, there's our trouble." His lips twitched. "The bug in the machine, so to speak."

It was, in fact, a medium-sized cockroach, scorched to charcoal but still recognizable, that had somehow crawled into the heart of the memory core and then made some incautious move that shorted out no less than five of the computer's expensive thousand-word arrays.

Crane asked the obvious question: "Can you fix it?"

"I doubt it." Nelson picked up one of the less-damaged arrays and squinted at it. "We could go back to the eight-kiloword version of the operating system, if we've still got the tapes. But even that would need some tricky rewiring."

"We . . ." Sparks began, and then broke off with an uncontrollable yawn. "Sorry, sir."

"No, you're right," said Nelson. "We'll come back to this in the morning." He glanced over at the chronometer. "Oh-six hundred hours, sharp."

"Aye, sir. Good night, sir." The young man left.

The Admiral stayed for a while longer, tidying up the area.

"I'll get an electrician to take care of that," Crane said at length. He thought the Admiral might be stubborn about it; he had that look about him, driven, almost obsessive, and for no good reason that Crane could see. Surely there would be time enough in the morning to complete some kind of repair before the launch window arrived. But the Admiral only finished gathering up stray screws, gave Crane an absent-minded goodnight, and went off to his cabin without another word, leaving the Captain staring after him and wondering what was in the wind.


At six the next morning Nelson was back in the Control Room, poring over schematics. He had not slept much; as far as he could remember, he had spent most of the four hours mentally reprogramming the computer, and when he had dropped off, in his dreams he had been hunting for Edith -- who kept slipping back and forth, dream-fashion, between grown woman and mischievous child -- through a maze of scorched wire infested with cockroaches the size of automobiles. Sparks, when he arrived a few minutes later with a dusty tape-spool under his arm, looked marginally more refreshed.

"Good morning, Sparks." Deliberately, Nelson shoved his own worries to the back of his mind. "Let's get to work."

By noon, the computer was back in its case, slower and less powerful than it had been, but functional. Now all that remained was to re-code the control program for the probe launch, stripping out every unnecessary variable, anything that would overcrowd the cramped remnants of the computer's memory. It was slow, painstaking work, but Sparks knew his job. They finished with half an hour to spare. Meanwhile, Seaview had arrived at launch co-ordinates -- Nelson made a mental note to congratulate the Captain on accurate navigation under difficult circumstances -- and a team of technicians was checking the probe in its launch silo. Nelson went down there to supervise the final tests, and then installed himself at the table in the Observation Nose, with a good view of the monitor screen and a microphone to hand.

"Launch!" The silo hatch opened, and the probe leapt for the sky, leaving Seaview lurching from the inevitable recoil.

"Probe telemetry OK," Sparks reported when the ship had settled. "Course as projected."

"Good." Nelson watched the monitor as the exhaust trail of the rocket scored across the sky. Finally -- finally something is going right.

"Booster separation achieved." The minutes ticked by, and the exhaust trail began to fade. At the bottom of the screen, numbers flickered. "Orbital insertion, sir."

"Good. Now deploy the camera, and give me a picture."

"Aye, sir."

The screen went blank, zigzagging with static, and then cleared to a picture of darkness with three white spheres hanging in it -- spheres that were neither natural nor of Earthly manufacture.

"Spy satellites?" Crane asked, making Nelson jump.

"They look like it, don't they. But whose? Sparks, can you get me a closer look at that nearest object?"

"I can try, sir."

The picture wobbled, re-centring itself, and began to zoom in on one of the spheres. The object remained frustratingly featureless.

"Is that the best you can do?"

"Sorry, sir. It's . . . I think it's moving, sir."

"Moving?" Nelson jumped to his feet, still clutching the microphone. The white blob on the screen did indeed seem to be farther from the camera than it had been. "Better check with the shore-side monitoring stations.

"Aye, sir." A pause, and then, "Admiral, there's a report from Cape Canaveral. Unidentified objects are moving . . . leaving orbit."

"Leaving orbit? In which direction?"

"Away, sir." A switch clicked, and a voice crackled over main speakers.

"Houston confirms orbital incursions withdrawing. All response units are returning to standby." The line hissed and popped, and then a different voice said cheerfully, "Well, Harry, it looks like your probe did the trick. Whatever they were, they've gone -- high-tailing it out of the solar system. Congratulations."

"Thank you, General," Nelson said automatically. Gone before we even got a good look at them. Well, if they're that easily put off, they can't be much of a threat. "All right, Sparks. Secure telemetry."

"Aye, sir."

"And when you've done that . . ." Nelson glanced down at the folder that lay at his elbow, and shook his head, recognizing the fatigue in the young man's voice and realizing suddenly how tired he was himself. "Go get some rest." The mysterious message would have to wait a little while longer.


"You did a good job on the computer, Sparks," the Admiral said over breakfast the next morning.

"Thank you, sir."

Nelson gave the young man a thoughtful look, decided that more praise would only embarrass him, and came to the point. "So good, in fact, that I've got another job for you."

"Sir?"

"Finish your breakfast. I'll bring it by the Radio Shack when you're on duty."

"What can I do for you, Admiral?" Sparks asked half an hour later, when the Admiral appeared at his elbow.

"This message." Nelson laid the by now dog-eared folder down atop the radio cabinet. "It's some kind of code, but I can't make head or tail of it. Have you any idea what it might be?"

Sparks flipped the folder open and glanced at it, frowning. "It doesn't look like anything I . . . wait a minute!"

"Yes?" Nelson said eagerly. "Can you read it?"

The young man grinned. "I can't, sir, but the computer should be able to handle it, if we've got the tape of the original transmission. You see that header?" He pointed out a line of gibberish near the top. "This message came through one of those new commercial e-mail companies, and the hash looks like an encoded binary attachment. If you'll leave it with me for a few minutes, I should be able to unencode it for you."

"Very well. I'll be in my cabin." Nelson went back to his quarters, laid out paper and pens on the desk and started trying to draft a report on the mission. At least this one had been relatively straightforward, but the report would have to be worded with a little care, if it was to have the effect he intended; Congressional Committees were not easily persuaded to part with money for new computing equipment.

"Admiral, this is Sparks. I've started decoding your file. It's not going very fast, but I've got the beginning."

"Well, what is it?"

"It's a JPEG image, sir -- a picture. Shall I pipe it to the screen in your cabin?"

"Yes, go ahead." Nelson laid down his pen and flicked on the monitor. Line by line, an image formed on the screen: a blurry background of out-of-focus leaves and branches; something dark and rounded, and another rounded, reddish-brown shape. No, the shapes were heads -- a young man's, and a woman's. The man was good-looking and pleasant enough, but no-one Nelson knew; the woman was his only sister. They were both smiling, he discovered when the picture unfolded enough to show their expressions, and they held between them, across their knees, a banner with something written on it in bold blue letters. "Oh, Edith, Edith. What are you up to now?" Line by agonizing line, the image revealed itself, but he still could not make out the words. After a while, unable to watch any longer, he turned away and concentrated for a while on what he was writing. When he finally looked back at the screen, the image was complete, and the legend was plain to read. "Edith and Tom -- congratulations on your engagement!"

"Engagement, is it?" Nelson murmured, shaking his head at his sister's radiant smile. "Well, at least you didn't get yourself married without warning me first." Still contemplating the picture, he picked up the intercom. "Sparks, this is the Admiral. I need to make a call to Boston right now!"

 

 The End


Copyright 1998 Rachel Howe


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