by David M. Brown
Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
Once the scientific community interpreted the data from the probe, things started happening. The story zoomed across the sciNets. Then The Times picked up it up.
The turning point was Joe Benderby’s articles for Sci-Fi, Sci-Fack, which were followed by his seminal book Planet of the Bubbles, then by a movie version that got two thumbs up. All of which pumped up the hopes and good will of all mankind.
Soon a journey to the bubble planet was planned.
“Calibrating turbo aligners,” rasped Mary the Engineer. “Readjusting the framdigilator. Full DOS vector shielding compensation initiated. Lux null-polarization logarithm quotient….” Nobody knew why Mary had to give the rundown, since they saw the steps reflected on their screens anyway. But Mary was always like this.
It was the enthusiasm of mankind that had made the trip possible. All doubts had been swept aside as the first spaceship to be built in a long time, the S.S. Soapdish, gleaming surface glittering, was launched to worldwide exhilaration.
A planet of bubbles!
Captain Coordinator Jones addressed the representatives of humanity.
“People…okay, settle down, people. It is my happy and proud duty to inform you that we are approaching the planet Bubble.”
Breaths of anticipatory wonderment scudded around the ship, from lip to lip, bouncing, flying, jouncing.
“Shall we really see the bubble people?” a little girl asked.
“Shut up, ya little brat,” someone snarled.
“Now…okay, everyone settle down,” Captain Jones said. “It’s okay, little girl, don’t cry, you’ll have your chance to see the bubble beings. Everyone will have an equal opportunity. Now, please keep in mind that we are dealing with fragile organisms here. The planet is hollow as well, just a very large bubble made of the very same stuff as the bubble beings themselves. We must be careful and wear our antigravity gear at all times, lest we perturb the delicate ecological order.”
Representatives of all the major pressure groups of Earth made up the passenger list. They had been selected by a combination of lottery and political connection.
When the spaceship rose, flashing and booming into the vast black sky, everyone remaining behind had watched and waved, with a smile and a tear, thinking of the new planet, a planet of sentient, freely floating, carefree bubbles.
The lofty optimism was justified. The probe had proved that the bubble beings lived, thrived, knew a better way. They floated. They floated, floated, floated, gently and continuously, without ever quite descending to the surface or bumping into each other. They could be, often were, close to each other and even almost contiguous. But they never rammed or clung. The proportion of carbon monoxide to tetra-helium in the atmosphere was just enough for them to remain effortlessly and constantly aloft, as Benderby had explained with “almost Asimovian clarity.”
As for bubble procreation—simplicity itself, even given the bubble beings’ apparent homosexuality: an easygoing accumulation of sebaceous gas droplets and ensuing subdivision of the bubbular organism in accordance with the elementary laws of bio-aerophysics.
“I expected the sky to be different,” said one passenger wistfully as the Soapdish prepared to descend.
“How do you mean?” his companion asked.
“Ah well. I thought the stars would be brighter somehow. Clearer. Out here…out near the bubbles. But this—this is fine.”
“Let the astronomers worry about it.”
“I suppose.” The disappointment in the man’s voice lapsed into a kind of battened stoicism. “That’s what my wife says, I worry too much.”
The other turned away. “The bubbles will help us.”
“The bubble beings do not speak English,” said Captain Coordinator Jones. “In time, we will learn to speak the bubble language and they ours. Okay. Now, everyone put on the antigravity outfits. And please—no smoking, spitting, or other excretions on the planet surface.”
“The calculations have been entered,” confirmed Mary the Engineer.
“Switching to landing mode,” said Jeb the Workmanlike Chief Navigator, his voice rising just a little.
“If there are any bubble prostitutes, do not have sex with them,” Jeremy the Prim Ship Deacon admonished.
“Landing the ship now,” said Jeb the Navigator. “We are approaching the surface of the bubble. Approaching bubble proximity. The bubble is imminent. Nine…eight…”
“The inhabitants seem confused,” said Taweeka the Empathetic View Scan Checker. “Disoriented.”
“Mary the Engineer, you’re sure about the buffer field?” asked Captain Coordinator Jones, edgily. “I don’t want this giant ship smacking the surface.”
“We’re gonna be a full three inches above the surface at all times. And moving slowly enough so that any bubbles in our path can float out of the way.”
“If you think we should orbit for a while…”
“…four…three and a half…three and a quarter…”
“I know my equations, Captain Jones. I feel that in my opinion they are valid.”
“I know your feelings about the equations, I’m sure they’re accurate. I’m just a little worried…are you sure, for example, that nothing at the base of the ship could penetrate a weak coordinate of the field and touch the surface?”
“Can’t happen, I feel.”
Jeb the Navigator looked up from the bubble aligner. “The newly constructed base of the ship consists of anti-Velcro wadding, Captain. Even if we temporarily lose the field, the ship would simply bounce off the surface, like a rubber ball against a feathery net. Thanks to our gravitronic diffusers, the ship’s mass would be distributed over the entire planet…two and seven eighths…two and five eighths…”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Chris the Short Geologist. “The only field-penetrating extrusion when we land is just going to be my one itty-bitty soil collector, and—”
“W-w-w-w-w-ha-hat???!!!” screamed Jones. “Goddamn you! Jeb the Navigator, reverse course! Immediately! Reverse course!”
“What?” “We haven’t discussed this.” “You can’t reverse course arbitrarily like that.” “Let’s take a vote.” “We must stay the course.”
“Reverse course! Reverse course!”
But it was too late. The ship was touching down. The sharp needle of the soil collector was extending, extending, extending—
—the last best hope of humanity…popped.
All because of one dumb little prick.
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