Probing For Aliens

A short story by Clayton J. Callahan

There are legends dating back to our pre-spaceflight days of alien visitors in flying saucers and other such nonsense. Such fanciful musings are, of course, ridiculous. For instance, if aliens wished to make contact with us; why did these supposed UFO encounters always take place in remote parts of the world? And s for their supposed behavior upon making contact such as creating crop circles, walking around naked, mutilating cattle, and “probing” human beings—well, I can’t think of any logical reason for that. Can you?

Sophie Mallon, early 23rd-Century anthropologist.

***

Well, college was a total waste of four years of my life. I know, I know, “Follow your dreams,” they told me. What they didn’t tell me is that nobody wants to hire you with a degree in fine arts. Oh sure, I’m now a “cultured and educated” member of society, but in this economy, and with my GPA, that means exactly squat.

So, after three months of knocking on doors, I took what was available, Remote World Surveyor. With millions of stars containing likely habitable worlds, the government can’t probe them all.  Instead, they subcontract out to hundreds of private firms, which are each assigned a sector of space, and paid to check ‘em out.

Naturally, they’re incentivized to visit as many planets as possible as cheaply as possible. The job pays just a bit more than minimum wage, and there aren’t any benefits or sick days…and don’t even thinking about joining a union. This was a “right to work” planet after all. After three months of job shopping, I applied at Wackencorp Expeditions, and the rest is history.

Getting an interview was extremely easy as they’re always hiring. Wackencorp does this weekly meeting thing, and I got invited just because I spelled my name right on the application. We were in this big room, and there must have been fifty people listening to a guy give a pitch for the company and all the great things it did for the galaxy. I just stared out the window, watching the ships come and go from the spaceport. After the Rah-ra session, they herded everybody into cubicles to be interviewed. Aside from the usual questions about my age, height and tax status, all that the guy asked me was, “Can you drive a grav vehicle?”

Of course, any teenager I know can. I had my license before I finished public school. He gave me the company handbook and told me to report next Monday. I guessed that meant I got the gig.

***

A week later, I walked in for the orientation at the corporate office, and it turned out to be a long, slow day. I filled out a bunch of forms. Some stated that by signing; I affirmed that I had read the handbook. Other forms asked who my next of kin were, and how to contact them. I also had to watch a “Safe Driving” hologram but slept through most of it.

The second day was all classroom stuff. I was in a room with some other new hires, sitting at busted tables on cheap folding chairs. We were listening to this pretty fem in a skirt explain to us the proper way to conduct a planetary survey. She said that the government was particularly interested in discovering new, sentient life in the galaxy.  Since the discovery of the Ohmygoshy over a thousand years ago, she reminded us, we had discovered thousands of alien races. She told us that there was nothing more exciting than meeting a new race for the first time, as each one was an opportunity for us to learn and grow as a species. I asked her if she had ever done that herself. Her eyes lowered, and her lips pouted as she said, “No, there have been no reports filed of new sentient races in over seventy years.”

Then, it was time for lunch; I hadn’t packed one, so it was vending machine food and water from the drinking fountain for me. I got a text from my buddy telling me that the Dead Fishermen were playing at the Mystic Tavern tomorrow night. Awesome!

Later, while my food digested, we were told about all the official forms to fill out when a new race was discovered. Most of them were stored on obsolete, government software systems that were a pain to navigate. You had to go into a lot of detail about the new sentient race’s anatomy, psychology, and culture. Basically, it was stuff from all the required classes they made me take in my freshman year at college—when I was discovering girls. The more sophisticated the alien race, the more paperwork you had to do. I raised my hand.

“Miss, I’m no biologist, or any kind of scientist at all really, how am I supposed to know how to do all these experiments and collect all this data?”

She looked at me and blinked her pretty black eyes. “That’s why you have an Artificially Intelligent Bio-Brain on board. Didn’t you read your handbook?”

“Oh, right! Sorry, forgot about the AI.” I went back to doodling in my handbook.  Absolutely awesome concentric designs soon filled the margins. I once had an entire semester learning to do these spiral patterns in all kinds of mediums; it was totally cool.

After the class, we were fitted for uniforms—thick, ugly orange jumpsuits with no pockets. I was introduced to my boss, a squat middle-aged dude in a cheap suit who just looked at me and grunted. After that, I was sent home with my uniform in a plastic bag, under my arm.

***

I hate getting up early in the morning. There is something unnatural about having to open your eyes before the sun even bothers to rise. I looked in my drawer and remembered I hadn’t washed any underwear that week. Oh well, time to go commando. I got dressed in the stiff, orange uniform and went up the stairs to the first floor of my parent’s house. Breakfast was cold leftovers and an energy drink. I made the bus in time and arrived at the space-field a whole five minutes before liftoff.

Cool, right?

But oh no, my boss was pissed, said he had to do all the pre-flight safety checks himself. What a load of crap. Like anybody walks around the family grav car, and kicks the propulsion systems before a trip?

Right?

I mean, a grav vehicle is a fairly simple thing. You got your engine in the center, so the anti-grav field is conveyed evenly across the disk. After that, it’s a matter of checking the scanners and adjusting the seat. Then bam! You’re flying away. This one was a bit bigger than my mom’s. It was more like a camper than a car, with a roomy cockpit and everything. There was also space for a laboratory and all kinds of science stuff on the lower deck.  I made sure the cup holder was fastened tight to the dashboard so I wouldn’t spill my energy drink.

“Hello, Pilot. I am AI Unit 1356, at your service.” To my right, I noticed the Bio-brain pulsing under a glass dome where the passenger seat should have been. “We are en-route to star system Beta Beta 999. We are to conduct a phase one probe of its habitable zone and explore/survey any planets that may have life. What are your requirements of me?”

“Not a damn thing, pal.”

“I beg your pardon, Pilot?”

“Nothing. Just shut up and let me drive.”

I hit the ignition and drove into orbit. Thirty minutes later we parked in the mother ship’s main bay, and I only scraped the bulkhead a little. Trying to take a nap while we jumped to another star system wasn’t easy. The damn AI never shut up. I swear the damn thing was worse than my mother.

“What are your questions regarding Betta Betta 999, Pilot?”

“Yea, actually I do have one question for you, AI. Will you shut-the-hell-up and let me sleep?” I asked as I propped my feet upon the dash.

“There is a scheduled rest period in five hours, six minutes, Pilot. The star we are about to visit has a diameter of 1,392,684, and its mass accounts for about 99.86% of the total mass of its Star System. Chemically, three-quarters of its mass consists of hydrogen, while the rest is helium. The remainder consists of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron, among others…” and on and on it went.  I frankly couldn’t give a shit.

By the time we shifted into hyperspace, I itched all over. The cheap, orange coveralls were chafing my tender bits, reminding me to do the laundry when we got back…or get mom to do it. We warped back into regular space, and I saw the green light flash over the control panel.

So much for my nap; time to go to work.

I detached from the mother ship and steered right as I watched it shimmer out of existence. The mother ship had a lot of other surveyors to drop off at a lot of other stars this being the first day of a new exploration cycle. No problem, I would see it again when my shift ended. Which was when again?

“Eight hours and fifty-four minutes, Pilot.” the AI informed me.

“Okay, great, plenty of time to catch the Dead Fishermen.”

“Dead Fishermen?” This AI obviously was no music fan. But I didn’t bother educating it.

“Never mind, let’s get this over with. AI, do a scan or something. What are we looking at here?”

“As I stated before, the star we are visiting has a diameter of 1,392,684, and its mass accounts for…”

“No, dumb-ass. I mean what’s in the star system besides the star?”

“Thank you for the clarification, Pilot. The system has eight planetary bodies, two of which are gas giants. Only two planets are in the habitable zone. Of those two, only one has an atmosphere capable of supporting life-as-we-know-it. However, it is possible that there is life in microscopic form on the other planet as well as on the moons of the gas giants.”

“Cool,” I replied. “Do we get paid for surveying microscopic life?”

“Nothing above the hourly rate. For plant life, there is a three percent bonus and another eight percent for multi-cellular animal life.”

I breathed out a sigh. “Okay, give me a course for the one with an atmosphere and stuff.”

“Calculating now,” the machine answered. I undid the fastenings on my uniform and started to strip. “Pilot, what are you doing?”

“I’m taking off my uniform, you idiot. What does it look like?” I just couldn’t stand the scratchy thing anymore. Figured I would go a-natural for the duration of my shift. After all, there wasn’t anybody for billions of spans to see me.

AI gave me the course, and I steered the designated world. It looked kinda’ pretty.  The planet had lots of blue oceans and two ice-caped poles, just like home. But, when I did a quick swing around its orbit, I did NOT like what I saw: cities, lots of ‘em. They were especially thick along the coasts. This planet was just bursting with civilization.

“Uh, AI?  Can you put us down in the middle of that northern continent? I think we can take our samples and do our experiments and stuff there.”

“Judging by the amount of electric activity on the coasts, we may find sentient life on this planet. Shouldn’t we make a landing at one of those locations, Pilot? They may be major population centers where we are sure to meet the planet’s scientific and political leaders.”

“Uh, no. No, I think those are electrical storms or something.  I wouldn’t want us to get fried by some random atmospheric discharge.” Okay, so I was reaching for it, but if we did contact intelligent life, I’d be doing paperwork forever and missing the concert to boot.

“Pilot, the readings are not consistent with natural phenomenon. However, they are consistent with signs of sentient civilization.”

“Now listen here, AI! Who’s in charge of the safety of this ship? You or me?” I was actually asking a question because I really didn’t know at that point.

“You are, Pilot.”

That was a relief. “You’re damn right, I am! Now, give me a course to land in the middle of the northern continent. I want you to avoid ANY electrical power sources, to keep us safe you see?

“Which Northern continent, Pilot? There are two of them.”

“I don’t care. The one on the left.”

“Yes, Pilot. Recalculating.”

I soon had the coordinates to a nice, empty field in the middle of nowhere. It would take me over a wide prairie, near some big mountains. The scenery was bland and totally uninteresting. So I decided to spruce it up a bit.

“Pilot, what are you doing?”

“It’s called ‘art’ numbskull. All you need to do is change the settings on the inertial dampeners and you create this swirling vortex, see?”

“All vortexes swirl, Pilot. That is what makes them vortexes.”

“Shut-up,” I said. “Anyway, you can use the vortex to make patterns in the ground, see?” I looked back, proud of my handiwork.

“Concentric circular patterns impressed in the vegetation. What is the meaning of those symbols, Pilot?”

“Meaning? It’s ART you moronic machine. It doesn’t have to have a meaning so much as a…well a feeling.” Obviously, there is a reason they don’t send AIs to art college.

“I am not a ‘moronic machine.’ I am an artificial, biological computing unit consisting of protein and silicon in complex matrixes, capable of broad-spectrum problem solving and sophisticated memory storage, much in the same way as an organic life form, but at much greater efficiency,” the AI chided me.

I retorted with my best “Whatever,” and turned back to the controls.

Setting the grav vehicle down easy in a field by a rushing stream, I checked the gauges as the landing gear kissed the ground. The temperature outside was mild and the air breathable. Grabbing my sample kit and earpiece, I opened the hatch and walked out onto the alien world.

There was some kind of stringy plant life covering the ground. I clipped some of it off and placed it in the kit, and then walked around some. The night was pleasant, with millions of stars visible to the naked eye. This was the absolute middle of nowhere, and that suited me just fine. I really didn’t have much of a plan beyond walking around the grav vehicle and maybe picking some flowers or something.

Unfortunately, as I circled the grav vehicle, I found myself face to face with one of the natives.

The ugly creature stood on four legs and had a short, useless tail that swished back and forth. His eyes were as big as mine but had whites around the pupils, and his skin was covered in fine black and white hair.

It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen…up until then.

“Uh, hi,” I managed to say. I have to admit I felt pretty embarrassed. I mean, here I was, making the first contact with an alien race butt-assed naked in the middle of nowhere. I felt the cool breeze on my gray skin, and it gave me goose-bumps. The creature continued to regard me, apparently unconcerned by my lack of attire as he was naked too. He—and I’m only guessing it was a ‘he,’—just kept reaching his head down to eat the stringy plants off the ground.

“AI, what do I do?”

The machine’s voice chirped in my earpiece. “Standard procedure is to use the U235 stun ray in your sample kit to immobilize the creature. Then, take it into the grav vehicle’s port side laboratory bay for a brief medical examination. Return the subject to his natural environment once that protocol is completed.”

That didn’t sound too bad, and I was pretty sure that I could get all that done by the end of my shift. I opened the kit and found the stun ray. It was the first time I held a gun in my life, but I had seen plenty of action holograms, so I figured it couldn’t be too hard. I flipped off the safety, took aim and pressed the trigger switch.

A bolt of white light shot from the blaster, and the air crackled as particles exploded around the beam. Scared the living crap out of me, I’ll tell you! When the smoke cleared, the alien staggered back and making a loud ‘moo’ sound. Red fluid leaked from its lips as it turned and fled in terror.

“AI, what the hell just happened?”

“Pilot, you used the U234 blast ray. It is a defensive weapon used to kill and mutilate an enemy. The alien received a glancing hit across its mouth but was otherwise unhurt. The U235 stun ray is in the pocket to the right, the one labeled U235.”

I looked at the weapon in my hand. Sure enough, it had U234 etched in its housing plain as day. As I reached for the U235 stun ray, I heard a strange yelping sound coming from the stream. Turning to look, I saw another alien. Crap! This planet just crawled with ‘em!

This one looked a little different. He stood on two legs and used his two other limbs as arms. And he was tall, about twice my height. His head was smaller, and his arms were shorter than mine, some kind of fur covered his head, and he had the smallest eyes I’ve ever seen. He wore loose, checkered clothing and carried a long pole with a string at the end of it supporting a hook. The alien yelled something I couldn’t understand and began to run off. Raising my stunner, I took aim and fired.

I had to shoot several times before I hit the bugger. Who would have thought something so awkward looking could run so fast? Finally, he collapsed on the field, and I had to walk a long way to get him. Reaching into the sample kit, I found a beam lifter and used it to carry the alien back to the grav vehicle. He was awake but couldn’t move as I placed him on the exam table.

“Okay, AI. Let’s get this show on the road. What do I do now?”

“Pilot, first locate the multi-function, tester/sampler from the aft wall dispenser. Then remove the cap from the tip of the nozzle. If you anticipate discomfort or difficulty, apply some jelly to ease insertion. Locate the subject’s primary orifice, and gently insert the tip of the nozzle using your right hand. This may be uncomfortable, but it should not cause severe pain.”

“Where is his primary orifice? He’s got this big mouth, and I think these are nostrils?” I asked as I studied the alien’s head.

“Pilot, the primary orifice will not be on the creature’s face.”

“What? Are you trying to tell me I have to…?”

“Yes, Pilot. That is the standard procedure. After you collect the necessary biological data, the subject’s memory will be erased so as not to cause undue stress.”

At this point, I was feeling a lot of undue stress myself. Still, I followed the instructions, took the samples, and did all the other stuff the AI told me to do—all the while humming a Dead Fisherman tune. The alien just kept looking at me and moving his lips. I think he was trying to say something, but I have no idea. The last thing I was told to do was place a neuro-paddle to his head to erase his memory.

“Now, this will work? He won’t remember any of this crap?” I was still naked, and I sure didn’t want anybody to remember me like that.

“That is correct, Pilot. The only possible way he could be made to remember is through hypnosis, and it is unlikely that a society this primitive would have developed that capability.”

“Well, that sounds pretty reassuring.” I activated the paddle and watched his expression go blank as he forgot everything. Then, I helped the guy sit up. The paralysis was wearing off, but I still had to help him walk down the stairs and out of the grav vehicle. As he started to walk away, he turned and waved one of his hands at me, displaying a single finger. I waved back with the same gesture; it seemed like the nice thing to do.

Closing the hatch, I went back to the driver’s seat and took in a deep breath. “Now what do we do, AI?”

“Didn’t you read the handbook?”

By this point, I was tired of taking crap from a brain in a jar. “Just tell me, okay!”

“Standard procedure is to store the samples in accordance with government regulations. Then, register a Standard Report-Biological, or SRB for short, to include all organic samples obtained. After that, a Standard Report-Sentient Life Form, an SRSLF, will be completed with all relevant psychological, sociological and cultural data included.”

I was thinking about all the stuff that the pretty girl in the skirt had said at orientation about paperwork. I checked the time. The Dead Fishermen would be taking the stage in just about three hours. The mothership would pick us up in just under two. I had enough time to make the show if nothing else came up.

“Hey, AI. How long should all that take?”

“Standard time for completion of reports is twenty hours, twelve minutes.”

“Crap! Do I have to do that every time I visit some dirtball?”

“Negative, Pilot. You are only required to do that for planets that have intelligent life. This one obviously does.”

“Well,” I said, “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

“Pilot, what do you mean by that?”

“I mean that I got no problem letting somebody else be the first dude to do a Standard Report-Sentient Life Form for this planet on some other day.”

The AI sounded offended. “This is an important task, Pilot. Our civilization may depend on it. No one has filed such a report in seventy-eight years.”

“Really, and how long has the government left this job to crappy companies like Wackencorp?”

“Seventy-six years.”

“Still, not my problem, AI. Now come on, this can just be our little secret?”

The machine answered me with cold efficiency, “Pilot, I am programmed to answer all questions honestly. If you do not do the required paperwork, you will be in violation of government regulations 30.1.4 and 55.6.2 under the New Sentient Species Identification Act. Punishable by fines and possible jail time. You would also be fired before you collect your first paycheck. As per standard procedure, your supervisor will ask me, when we return. And I am programmed to answer all questions, and I am programmed to always tell the truth!

Crap, that was not the answer I wanted—but it was still an answer I could use. No real surprise that sentient life hadn’t been reported since way back in the day.

“Hey, AI?”

“Yes, Pilot.”

“Answer me truthfully then. The memory erasing neuro-paddle thing, can it be used on artificial bio-brains with protein and silicon matrixes?”

There was a long pause before the AI answered me.

The answer was, “Yes.”