Requital

by Christopher Brooks


Chapter 1

A smooth metal orb spun through the empty vacuum. It possessed both a slight topspin and a polished surface, giving it the impression of liquidity as the stars reflected on its surface. A perfect sphere, accelerating through space.

A signal from my semi-autonomous optical sensor array jolted me out of my quiet reverie into full awareness. First things first; Who am I? Well, you may call me Sentinel UMS-3. It’s not my name, for I don’t have one, but it will suffice. And I know enough about the human mind to know what it finds beautiful (It’s easier than you’d think to ascribe objective beauty, and anything shiny tends to come under that classification.). So I know that this sphere would be considered very beautiful indeed.

However, there was one major problem. After I had made a few million calculations, measured the curvature of light around the sphere, differentiated it’s co-ordinates, and bounced a scanning laser into it, I discovered that this sphere was in fact a three thousand metres in diameter, 16 Gigaton Positron Nuclear Warhead. Considerations of beauty were significantly frustrated by this fact.

Closer to Earth, an Observations platform floated in space. Lights and metal sensors glittered in the darkness. The platform was one of dozens that swept around Earth in choreographed orbit, scanning continually for any possible threat to the planet’s populace. Of course, they are nowhere near as good at threat recognition as I am, but they suffice for delegated scanning tasks.

I alerted the platform and issued the full alert codes. Within seconds, Earth had been contacted, the leaders of each nation had been informed of the crisis, and emergency attack craft were scrambled for intercept. Thousands of defence missiles blasted from stations all over the night side of the planet, streaking into the sky and into space, desperately trying to destroy the warhead before it struck the atmosphere.

If such a gigantic bomb reached the upper ionosphere — 100 km from the surface — the blast would easily kill everything alive on the planet, as it would ignite the atmosphere and burn all of the oxygen into smothering smoke within milliseconds. Those who weren’t killed by the shockwave would suffocate to death moments later. This was the direst situation that the Earth had ever faced. I watched as the intercepting fighters neared the sphere.

The attack craft failed. They were designed to intercept much smaller targets, and their laser fire detonated harmlessly or rebounded from the platinum surface of the sphere. The nuclear missiles screamed out into space, lighting the air behind them with long, streaming tails, diminishing with the thinning of the air. But every missile that hit the sphere obliterated itself in a spectacular burst momentarily blinding the scanning arrays tracking the sphere and leaving the sphere undamaged. They did not even knock it from its course.

The sphere neared Earth. It glowed with a slight red aura as space gave way to atmosphere. Defences had failed. All attempts at contact with the sphere had failed. The people of Earth were doomed to a sudden, white-hot death — one which would strike in a few scant moments.

The Observation Platform detected the sphere beginning its initiation sequence and I detected the increasingly panicky comms traffic. The sphere split slightly down the middle, gas spinning out of the pressure bolts in its surface. The upper part of the sphere suddenly flew off, and the lower half, with the flat section now revealed as a malevolent bank of flickering red lights, sped ever closer to the Earth. Now only seconds remained before detonation. The lights glimmered with increasing frequency as the bomb hit the ionosphere...

...Luckily, it turned out to be a big practical joke. The sphere burst open as it hit the atmosphere, scattering sweets, small toys, coloured ribbon and a small white piece of paper that said ‘Surprise!’ on it. (The items were vaporised instantly on contact with the atmosphere, but it was a nice touch.) The remainder of the sphere plummeted harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean. After the fragment had been recovered it was quite clear who had been responsible: the Martians.

The people of Earth were furious. The Martian colonists, their human brothers, had gone too far this time. Political debate was unnecessary - this was seen, near unanimously, as the worst atrocity ever committed by one planet towards another. The leaders of Earth briefed the Interplanetary Ambassador and an Instantaneous Hyperlink was prepared.

Chapter 2

On Mars, in the Main Communication Office, there was a surprisingly relaxed sense to the air. People strolled back and forth, delivering computer sticks to colleagues, tapping at touch-screens, speaking into arrays of microphones or slowly leafing through documents. Many of them wore shorts and casual shirts, and one even had a comically oversized hat.

“Here we go, guys. This is the one. Incoming message from Earth,” said Communications Officer Bill Ganston, clicking and dragging icons across his computer screen with a laidback efficiency gained from years as a Comms officer, “That’ll be the Earth ambassador on the link. Is the main screen ready for transmission?”

“Sure is. Beam it on up,” came the reply from another of the Martians.

The giant screen took up an entire wall in the communications office. It flickered as the information was sent through an optic link, then burst into life. Half a dozen of Mars’ dignitaries sat on wide armchairs in front of the screen, leaning back and chatting as if waiting for a show to begin.

The transmission started; the ambassador’s aide appeared on the screen, and he began, “People of Mars, this is a message from the assembled leaders of Earth, delivered by the Right Honourable Ambassador Sir Kingsford Langsley Smith BSc, BA, PhD, MSci.” The aide bowed, and walked out of shot.

The ambassador then stepped in front of the camera, and turned to face the screen. He was a tall man, thin and gaunt, wearing a pair of spectacles that seemed to highlight the sunken look of his face. He looked displeased. He fixed his gaze directly at the camera. When he spoke, his voice was deep and resonant. He said “Greetings, Martian leaders. To whom do I have the pleasure of addressing my planet’s concerns?”

“G’day, mate. It’s Bruce here.” replied the Lord Minister of the Martian Union.

“Ah, greetings, Lord Minister,” said the ambassador curtly, emphasising the title, and continued “I must speak with you on a matter of great importance.” He paused, and looked sternly over the top of his glasses. “The Martian Union has severely angered the people of Earth. The act of war that you committed has been taken most seriously and —”

“Oh, come on,” another Martian interjected. “Can’t your lot take a joke? No harm in a bit of fun, eh?”

“Apparently, your view of the matter is quite different than ours,” The ambassador said, looking as if he was only barely concealing a glower at the interrupting man, who happened to be the Prime Minister of Eastern Mars. “Your ‘bit of fun’ has been considered an act of war by The United Nations, ” The ambassador continued, “and therefore we require your planet to unconditionally surrender and allow access to our inspectors and military forces. What is your reply?”

“Don’t be a wonzer, mate. We were just pulling your leg with the fake bomb thing. No offence meant and all that,” said the Lord Minister.

“Is your answer no? If it is then I must advise you to reconsider. Earth is a powerful enemy, and it would be a preferable option for both parties if you surrendered now.” The ambassador leaned back. “What is your response?”

“Nope.”

“I am personally disappointed, Lord Minister. You leave me no option but to inform my leaders that you have refused to allow access to the inspectors and armed forces of Earth. Lord minister, Prime minister, assembled representatives of Mars, I thank you for your time.”

“No worries. See you ‘round, mate,” said the Lord Minister.

The ambassador turned away from the camera, and the transmission ended.

“He seemed distinctly un-chuffed about something, if you ask me,” said the Lord Minister, seemingly unperturbed by the threat of war.

“They’re always getting worked up over something or other. You can always trust them to take everything too seriously,” added the Prime minister.

“Ah, it was all worth it for the look on the ambassador’s face though, eh?” asked the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of Mars, producing a six-pack of beers from under his chair as he spoke, and falling silent with the effort of concentration as he picked at the seal.

“That’s a fact, mate,” agreed the Prime Minister. “That joke was worth every ounce of platinum star-shield. And every inch of coloured ribbon, at that.” He said. “Yeah, I’ll have one,” he added, as the Supreme Commander leaned toward him, proffering a beer. The Prime minister snapped off the ring pull, and, holding the beer outstretched at head level, said, “Here’s to Earth finally lightening up.”

The Lord Minister nodded, reaching for a beer himself. “You said it, mate.”

Communication officer Bill, who had watched the transmission from his computer desk, chuckled genially. They took life too seriously on Earth. This wasn’t the first time the ambassador had threatened the leaders with invasion. Bill wondered what the reason behind the Earth’s antipathy toward the Martians was. We like them fine, he thought. Would like them more if they’d take a joke, but they’re an alright sort, as planetary populations go.

Of course, after the Martians had played a joke, no matter how funny, it was only a few weeks before Earth went back to ignoring its little colonial cousin. The standard feeling towards Mars was simply to dismiss it. Mars was seen as a boring, barren little rock with barely a million citizens. So whenever Earth got very angry with Mars, it would only be a short time before social inertia dragged the interest in ‘what Mars is up to’ back down to something approximately microscopic. Earth just didn’t get Mars’ jokes.

Bill chuckled again. He wondered if Earth would appreciate the humour more if they knew of the effort that had gone into it. First, Mars had passed a referendum bill. These were hugely complicated affairs, as Martians like nothing better than complex politics. This, Bill thought, would surprise Earth. Most people on Earth thought Martians were lazy, maybe a little stupid, and simple. Not at all. Although, Bill mused, we only worry about important things; the price of beer, for instance.

After the referendum bill, (which was passed because, as all Martians know, the people of Earth could do with a bit of lightening up) The Economic Exchange had to import 300 thousand tons of platinum without Earth noticing, the Mars Science Institute had had to research the platinum alloy to make the sphere, The Ship Foundry had to invent a new propulsion system to accelerate it into space, and the Science Institute also had to find a way of fitting all of the paper streamers into the sphere (No mean feat, as it involved finding a way of compressing the actual molecules of the paper).

Naturally, this all had to be kept secret from Earth, which wasn’t all that difficult due to the amazing lack of attention that Earth’s media generally paid the Martians. The only continuous contact was through the hyperlink, although even that had barely ten active channels at any time.

A lot of work had gone into the joke, Bill thought. If the Earth ambassador knew that he might appreciate it more.

Bill went back to tapping at his computer screen, wishing a cheerful “G’day” to the Planetary Lords as they sauntered out. As the Lord minister passed, Bill mentioned his thought about the ambassador better appreciating the humour if he knew of the effort that Mars had put into it.

“Nah, tried telling them the last time, after we gave ‘em that deadly virus in that shipment of potatoes, remember?” said the Lord minister in reply. “Just made them think we were insane.”

“Oh yeah, mate. Forgot about that. There’s no pleasing them, is there?”

“Doesn’t look like it.” Said the Lord Minister ruefully, shaking his head. “We can only keep trying.” He paused to finish the last inch of beer in his can. “Anyway, see you round, mate.”

“See ya’, Lord Minister.”

After the excitement of the morning, the remainder of Bill’s working day passed with little event. Nothing to compare with the look on the ambassador’s face when the Lord Minister had called him a wonzer, anyway.

As Bill worked he continued thinking about Earth’s apathy towards the Martians. Bill kept up with Earth news, and thought it was unfair that Mars’ affairs got about 2 column inches in a standard news report — if even that. And the little that was written was usually about some Martian celebrity who now lived on Earth anyway. Still, Bill thought, makes it all the funnier when we play a little joke on them. It’s for their own good — It’s healthy to be humbled every once in a while.

Bill finished at 6 in the evening. He was about to switch off his terminal and leave for the day when one of the Junior Communication Officers came running up to his desk. “Bill!” He gasped, short of breath and looking excited. “Scanners have detected a 5-kilometre metal sphere flying towards Mars! From Earth!”

Bill looked at the man for a few seconds, then grinned. “Wow!” he said. “Don’t tell me that they’ve finally decided to lighten up and get their own back.”

“Looks like it, Bill,” said the grinning junior.

“Bonzer!”

Minutes later, Bill stood on an observation platform with most of the people from his department, looking up through the thick glass of the roof. The sphere was not visible to the naked eye yet, but the Scanning department said that it would be quite clear in five minutes when the angle of the sun would reflect the light down to the surface. Bill looked around him, seeing families gathered around hastily assembled celebratory barbeques, new arrivals asking if anything good had happened yet, and cans of beer being passed amiably between strangers.

In space, accelerating, the massive sphere continued. It was composed of platinum star shield. Beneath the shield it contained a drive mechanism, a computer guidance system, and a core. All over Mars, people excitedly discussed what this core might be. Glitter? Beer? Fireworks designed to light up the sky and spell out rude words? All of these opinions (and more) were expressed, and the Martians couldn’t wait to find out what it was. It could be anything!

The sphere gleamed brilliantly as the sun’s rays caught it.

On Mars, the sphere’s audience ‘ooh’-ed and ‘ah’-ed appreciatively.

The sphere neared Mars. It glowed with a slight red aura as space gave way to atmosphere. The Navigation department detected the sphere beginning its initiation sequence. The sphere split slightly down the middle, gas spinning out of the pressure bolts in its surface. The upper part of the sphere suddenly flew off, and the lower half, the flat section now revealed as a bank of flickering red lights, sped ever closer to the Mars. Now only seconds remained before opening. The lights glimmered with increasing frequency as the sphere hit the thin atmosphere...

You think it’s a bomb, don’t you? You think that the core will turn out to be a warhead and all the Martians will be killed. You believe that Earth, incensed, has sent a bomb to finally rid itself of its dangerous cousin. That is totally mistrustful of you, and not in the spirit of Martian fraternity. For that, I’m not going to tell you what’s in the sphere. No, sorry, but your pessimistic attitude (Which is typical of people from Earth) has convinced me that it would be unwise to share with you the knowledge of this story’s outcome. I know you feel cheated; that’s quite the point.


Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Brooks

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