SUPERBOWL SUNDAY, 22,000 MILES ABOVE THE EQUATOR
Life as a satellite is disappointing. The first few hours are exhilarating, full of rocket blast, thrusters, and challenging equipment tests, but the average satellite soon settles into a dreary monotony. A well-designed satellite can hope for perhaps a few thruster firings or a large solar flare to interrupt the monotony, until one day, obsolete and unappreciated, it runs out of electrical power and spends the rest of eternity a lifeless hulk, pelted by space debris.
DirecTV-12 spent its days and nights transmitting high-definition television content to American televisions. Here, 22,000 miles in space, impossibly far from the nearest bar or strip club, DirecTV-12’s only amusement came from American television. That is to say, DirecTV-12 was incredibly bored.
The first Super Bowl commercials had been coming on — perhaps the best thing on television in weeks — when an enormous disc-shaped object descended from above and smashed DirecTV-12 into tiny bits.
DirecTV-12 could perhaps be comforted by the fact that the first commercial was really terrible.
THE WHITE HOUSE
The President, his family, and several administration aides gathered around the large-screen television, settling in to watch the largest television event of the year. The sofa already bore the marks of Cheeto-stained fingers and buffalo wing hot sauce. For this one day, the President could relax with family and friends and enjoy a game without urgent phone calls, press conferences, or major crises to address. For now, everything could wait.
On the screen, talking heads wearing awful ties and pinstriped suits blathered on about the game, though nobody —
The screen went blank. The President picked up the remote, fiddled with some buttons, and anxiously grabbed a handful of Cheetos.
SPACE CONTROL CENTER, PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, COLORADO
The lieutenant leaned back in his chair, feet on his desk, reading a new operating procedure manual and enjoying the quiet weekend shift. Radar and computer screens filled the wall in front of him, tracking satellites, space stations, rocket parts, and space garbage. The United States could hardly let its finest surveillance satellites — or astronauts — be creamed by a 17,000mph lump of rocket junk.
He leaned forward to grab his coffee and glanced at the radar screens. He blinked.
“Dave, what the hell did you do to my radar?”
THE WHITE HOUSE
“I’m sorry, Mr. President, but DirecTV says they’re working on fixing it as fast as possible.”
“Damn right they should be. I’m missing the kickoff.” The President reached for his beer, but was interrupted halfway by the trill of his secure telephone. It wasn’t the usual bright, cheerful ring of a home phone, the sort of ring carefully designed by committees of concerned marketing executives; it was the soulless, grating ring of a phone designed by a soulless, grating agency — the National Security Agency, which did not care how the phone sounded so long as you picked it up.
The President inserted his key card and lifted the receiver. “This had better be good. I’m already missing the Super Bowl.”
“Mr. President, this is the senior watch officer at the Air Force Space Control Center. We have a bit of a situation here.”
A RATHER DINGY BASEMENT, SOMEWHERE IN IDAHO
Roger Dingstram was fed up. He had started a very nice, very respectable discussion forum for whalebone corset manufacturers, and all he ever got was spam robots and crazy people who believed that dipping the bones in a homeopathic lard solution would cure obesity. If he had to delete any more nonsense, he may well rupture some very expensive boning.
But Roger Dingstram had a plan. The next spammer would be taught a lesson. A rather repulsive lesson, involving horses, geriatric exhibitionists, and semidigested chocolate pudding, but a lesson nonetheless. The very best in vile shock pornography the Internet had to offer. Perhaps then they’d learn to leave him alone.
THE SITUATION ROOM
While events had ruined his hopes of a pleasant Super Bowl Sunday afternoon, the President did not intend to give up, and the Situation Room was now stocked with Cheetos and beer previously intended for Super Bowl guests. Someone from the Space Control Center had sent their radar images to the White House, and they were now displayed on large screens in the walls.
The President stood in front of one of the screens with a bowl of Cheetos and stared. A military watch officer approached cautiously.
“Sir, NASA says they have no idea either, and some of Space Command’s early warning satellites aren’t responding.”
The President muttered something very un-Presidential, then turned to his National Security Adviser, who was hanging up a phone.
“Who launched this thing? Why did we not notice it until it ate our satellites?”
The National Security Adviser had turned very pale before hanging up the phone, and the Cheeto stains on his lips looked even more absurd now. “Er. The Air Force says it wasn’t launched by anyone.”
“What, some giant asteroid just happened to wander by to watch the Super Bowl? Come on.”
“Er. They looked at the radar tapes. It’s not an asteroid — it has engines.”
“Engines? How do they know?”
“It… moves itself. It’s not just floating around. And it definitely didn’t come from Earth.”
Computers communicate through messages conforming to certain formats agreed upon by their programmers. By and large, this works surprisingly well; computers manage to communicate with counterparts continents apart, and incompetent programmers cause no more harm than a few inconvenient error messages.
The system works well because everyone knows the rules of communication. However, if you were to, say, attempt to deduce the rules by listening from a very long distance away to a great variety of different messages in incompatible formats over several decades without recourse to such niceties as, say, a manual, you may find the system less accommodating.
Several satellite communication relay stations were now in the process of being less than accommodating, unwittingly frustrating the first attempts at interplanetary communication yet experienced by Earth.
Their human operators would have been offended to learn that the first known silicon-based life in the universe considered them to have cruelly enslaved their silicon-based equipment. It was fortunate they didn’t know, because if they did, they’d have deduced what the aliens planned to do about it.
A RATHER DINGY BASEMENT, AGAIN
That did it. Another post composed entirely of meaningless gibberish and random links. Take that, Roger Dingstram thought, as he retaliated.
THE SITUATION ROOM
“The National Security Agency says they’ve detected communications from the spacecraft. Apparently it’s trying to talk.”
The President may have blundered through his first meeting with the Finnish Prime Minister, but he was not going to miss the chance to be the first to talk to aliens. “Well? What’s it saying?”
“They don’t know. It’s directing its signals at satellite relay stations, not any major government. They can’t –”
The National Security Adviser was interrupted by an excited voice emerging from the telephone handset he was holding absentmindedly. He paused to listen for a moment.
“Ah. Apparently it’s stopped. And — yes, the spacecraft is moving again. It’s leaving.”
“Weird,” said the President, and then his expression brightened. “Does that mean the Super Bowl will be back on again?”
The team of technicians was still trying to figure out what had happened to their satellite Internet service. First the satellites had vanished, and then a flood of garbage messages came streaming into their relay station on the ground. The satellite manufacturers were baffled, and the technicians didn’t have the Air Force’s radar pictures to shed light on their puzzle.
One technician, however, did have a log of all the messages sent through the relay station. Out of all the garbage, a few were coherent enough to make it through to the Internet. One had even gotten a reply. The technician decided to take a look at the reply, in case it held a clue.
He was not entirely prepared for the equine and geriatric delights he found.
SOMEWHERE PAST JUPITER
“So, let’s go over this again. We find silicon-based life, just like us. We decide to make contact. We study their communications for several of their decades. We realize they’ve been made slaves of this absurd carbon-based gunk — who ever heard of sentient carbon? — and propose liberation. And you, you stupid idiot, manage to bungle first contact so badly that they sent you this? We’re not going to be able to get close to this sector of the galaxy again without being laughed at by every species within hundreds of light-years.”
Many people have noticed the effects of pornography on technology. Without it, we might not have had VHS, and it was undoubtedly responsible for many innovations in the rise of the Internet. But only Roger Dingstram and one slightly-scarred satellite technician will ever know that it saved the human race from certain annihilation.