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First Contract

by Greg Costikyan

Copyright © 1999 by Greg Costikyan

This is the second chapter of the novel (the first being mostly scene-setting; this will give you a better idea what the book is like).

Click here to order from Amazon.com. (Or better yet, buy it at your local independent bookstore.)

II. Friends in High Places

I missed the first broadcast. I rarely watch the TV news; I'm not in a business where I have to think like the common American, and the actual news content of TV news is negligible. I read the Times, the Times, the Times, and the Times -- New York, L.A., of London, and Financial -- and The Economist for a broader perspective; and for fast-breaking news, there's always Reuters on the Web. In any event, I was working late that evening. About quarter after seven, the western sky turning red through my office window, I got a call from Maureen. "Did you see the news?" she said.

I frowned. "No," I said. "What's up?"

"You'd better turn on CNN," she said.

So I turned on the TV; I used it mainly to screen our commercials. One of the usual blow-dried idiots said something I didn't catch, then they cut to some footage from a bad Star Trek episode.

Three robed creatures with gray skin, eyes on stalks like snails, and enormous, pulsating heads stood before a red-lit backdrop. Ethereal music played. "Greetings from the galaxy," said one, gliding forward slightly. "I am Captain Sh'tsitsin. We come in peace from the stars."

Another glided forward. "We have received your radio and television transmissions for many years," it said. "Our Council has now deemed your race to be worthy of admission to the galactic community. We come bearing gifts, and wish to discuss Earth's future role among the civilized races with your world leaders."

"Peace," said the captain.

"Friendship," said the one that had not previously spoken.

"Prosperity," said the third.

"Our current position and vector is -- " said the captain, and reeled off a string of figures and terms that meant nothing to me. "Your astronomers may follow our progress through your star system; we shall assume orbit around your planet in approximately three days."

"We apologize for usurping your usual broadcast transmissions," said one of the others, "and will recompense your broadcast authorities and businesses at the prevailing commercial rate for the time we have taken."

"Thank you," said the captain, "and have a pleasant tomorrow."

They disappeared. Our blow-dried friend appeared, with a scientist who hadn't brushed his hair in recent memory. The scientist babbled something about the color of the light indicating that the aliens came from a Class M dwarf star.

"What do you think?" asked Maureen.

"Trite," I said. "And the special effects are lousy."

But as it turned out, I was wrong; it was no hoax. The astronomers easily spotted a spaceship decelerating atop a fusion flame at the indicated coordinates. Nobody knew quite what to make of it all; the market was up, then down, then up again, as rumor after rumor swept the world. Religious nuts wanted everyone to worship the aliens, or stone them as emissaries of Satan, or some such nonsense; academics portentously debated the likely effect of the aliens' visit. Since there was virtually no data to rely on, no one had any real idea what was going on -- but that didn't stop the TV from displaying hour after hour of talking heads jabbering nonsense.

It was all very interesting, to be sure, but the impact, on my business seemed nonexistent, at first. We had a product to release, the preliminary orders were good, we had to work like the dickens to get everything ready for CES. If the aliens caused us any problems, it was in terms of staff time lost: People crowded around portable TVs or radios with each new report.

I called a staff meeting, everyone above the level of director: quite a crowd in the room. "Listen, gentlemen, ladies," I said. "This company is at a vital juncture, as you know. I realize the world as a whole may be at a vital juncture, too, but the amount of staff time being spent on the news is --"

"Sir?" said someone I didn't recognize. He had a phone receiver in one hand.

"Can't it wait?" I said. "This is important." You don't waste thirty employees' time to take a call in the middle of a meeting; not only is it expensive, in terms of man-hours and salary dollars, but it's bad for morale. There isn't a phone call that can't wait.

"It's the president, sir," he said.

The president? But I was the president of -- Oh.

"Hello?" I said into the phone.

"Yo, dude," said the president. "How's it hanging?"

"Very well, Mr. President," I said. "And how is Jeannette?" I'd known him when he was a senator from California, and I'd always contributed generously to his campaign fund.

"Happier'n a pig in shit. Loves the whole capital social dealie. I hear surf's up at Laguna Beach," he said mournfully.

I smiled. "Well, the Congressional session should be over soon. Then you can take a break."

"Yeah," he said perking up. "Maybe we'll go to Maui. Hey, listen, Muks. These alien ginks are landing on the front lawn on Tuesday."


"Hey, wasn't my idea. But at least it makes it easier on security. I think they've been watching too many sci fi movies; like, it's traditional to land on the White House lawn or something. Anyway, Hapsburg's flying in from Brussels, and Fujaki from Japan... whole bunch of world leader-type dudes're gonna be there. I figure we gotta have some high-flying Americans, too. A coupla eggheads, a coupla suits... Any chance you can show?"

Hmm. Did I want to meet the aliens? Did I want an opportunity, albeit a remote one, to get my paws on some advanced interstellar technology? Do I look like a blithering idiot? "I'd be delighted and honored, sir," I said.

"Tubular," said the president. "Be there or be square!"

"Yes, sir," I said.

"Later, dude," said the president.

"You can't go," said Tanisha, palms flat on the conference table. "And certainly you can't take David with you." Outside, a harsh noontime sun baked down on the smoggy valley. In here, it was as chill as ever.

"Granted this is a critical point," I said, "but everything is running smoothly. David, is your presence needed to keep the MDS-316 on track?"

"Nope," he said. "Out of my hands, like I told you." I wanted him with me; he was far likelier than I to pick something useful up from the aliens. And he was thrilled to be going; to meet real, live creatures from another star? What more could a technogeek desire?

"You'll have our units ready for CES?" I asked Hsieh.

"Rollout is a go," he said. "Final preproduction tests are in ultimate assurance mode. All systems a-okay."

"And our loan with MuniBank is lined up?"

Tanisha looked a little uneasy. "Yes," she said reluctantly.

"Then what's the problem?" I said. "Surely MDS can run for a few days without me in situ. It's not like I'll be in Bora-Bora; last I heard, phone and Internet links between here and Washington were pretty good."

So they let me go.

The president looked terrific. But then, the president always looked terrific. He had a crack team of White House cosmetologists to make sure he looked terrific. "You look terrific," I said.

"Hey, thanks, amigo," he said, punching my shoulder. "Who's the geek?"

David Greenblatt looked extremely uncomfortable in a suit. I'd had to badger him for a good half-hour to get him into it. His tie was loose and crooked, his pants showed a good two inches of white athletic sock, and he was obviously sweating heavily. "This is David Greenblatt, our Chief Technology Officer," I said. "I brought him along in case we need to discuss technical issues with our extraterrestrial brethren."

"Yo," said the President. "Howaya?" He shook hands with Greenblatt.

"Copacetic," Greenblatt mumbled, eyes downcast.

It was a brisk spring day on the White House lawn. The gardens were bursting with flowers; a striped awning overhung a podium. Aides and Secret Service men ran about on mysterious missions, chattering desperately into walkie-talkies. Journalists, scientists, businessmen, diplomats, and anyone else with the pull to wangle an invitation milled about confusedly. There were really too many people; the lawn was gradually being churned to mud. Even so, far fewer people were here than wanted to be. Curious faces pressed against the wrought-iron fence that ran the perimeter of the White House lawn.

"Gotta motor, Johnny," the President said, patting my shoulder. "Gotta press the flesh. Later, dude." He meandered off in the direction of the president of the European Council of Ministers, who was conversing with the Brazilian ambassador.

David and I strolled off toward the deck chairs. It was well that we did, for moments after we took our seats, the PA system crackled to life. "Attention," it said. "Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please? Would you be so kind as to take your places? The Strategic Air Command reports that the alien craft has entered the atmosphere. We expect our visitors to be here momentarily."

Everyone scrambled for a seat. The journalists fiddled with their cameras and lights and microphones. I took a cigar from my breast pocket, and found my pocket knife to slice off the end.

David looked upward as I lit the cigar. I followed his gaze. The crowd had grown silent and the sky was darkening. Above us was....

A shape that blotted out the sky.

We had expected the aliens to send down a landing craft; instead, their entire ship, all hundred kilometers of it, was hanging over Washington. The ship was so huge that it was impossible to make out the overall shape; the best I can do is to say that it was a vast, grayish mass, covered with wells and protuberances that might make visual sense if viewed in isolation, but that together seemed chaotic. If the aliens had intended to impress us with the capacities of their technology, they had succeeded.

A small craft, shaped like a tear drop, broke off and spiralled toward the White House lawn. The mother ship lifted orbitward.

As the tear drop descended, the Marine Corps Band broke into the theme from Star Wars. Eyes shining, David hummed along. The craft touched down in silence.

There was applause as a hatch slid open. Three of the slug-like aliens glided gradually forward. I had that sense, again, of a bad Star Trek episode; their costumes were iridescent silver, their glide serene, their enormous, pulsating heads gave an impression of vast intelligence and wisdom.

The president was at the microphone, his very stance indicating that he had aside the 'surfer dude' he preferred to show his friends in favor of the 'august statesman' he presented on TV. Welcome to 21st century America; even our presidents aren't presidents; they just play them on TV.

"This is indeed an historic day," the president said, nodding sagely. "Captain Sh'tsitsin, Ambassador X'rksis, it is an honor to welcome you to Earth."

The aliens glided across the grass and up the podium stairs. I saw no legs, but wondered how that snail-like locomotion managed the stairs so easily. One of the creatures glided up to the President, and accepted the microphone. "Greetings, Mr. President, humans everywhere!" it droned. "Greetings, and peace to all." The bad-sci fi atmosphere was reinforced by the alien's voice: a flat monotone.

"May I introduce you to Dietrich Hapsburg, president of the European Council of Ministers? Takeo Fujaki, the Japanese Foreign Minister... João Canderao, Ambassador of Brazil," said the president.

The aliens bobbed their heads in a curious bow to each dignitary. "Charmed," said Hapsburg with a faint accent, returning their bow. "I do hope you'll visit our continent while you're here; we look forward to speaking with you."

"Greetings," said the alien. "Thank you for your kind invitation. Unfortunately, it will not be possible."

"No?" Hapsburg said.

"Please accept our apologies," said another one. "We chose to make first contact here, in the shade of the American White House, because our studies of your media indicate that this is the appropriate venue. We will be departing for New York in a short time, however."

"New York?" said the President with the incredulousness of the native Californian. "Why on Earth would you want to go to there?"

"In their beneficence," explained the alien captain, "the wisest minds of the galactic community have decreed that all negotiations with fledgling space-going races must be through their planetary government. We may not upset the balance of power."

"Planetary... what?" said Fujaki.

"Planetary government," droned the alien. "We understand it is headquartered in New York."

"Say what?" said the President.

"In fact," said the second alien, "where is the Secretary General? We expected him to be here to greet us also."

There was silence for a long moment. Then, Canderao said, "The Secretary General? You mean -- of the United Nations?"

"The United Nations?" shouted Hapsburg, his accent becoming more noticeable with distress. "That meaningless talk-shop? That pointless facade? That addle-pated...."

"The U.N," said the President sadly, shaking his head.

"Iesu Christe," said Hapsburg brokenly.

'God help humanity,' thought I.

When I got to the Hyatt, there was an urgent message from Tanisha Grant for me. I called her in California. "Johnson," she said, "MuniBank is balking on the loan."

"What?" I said. "Whatever for?"

She sighed. "I'm not clear on the reasoning," she said, "and I'm looking for an alternative lender. We may be able to float some bonds on the Euromarket -- but cash flow for the next few weeks will be awfully tight."

"Damnation," I said. "Would it help any if I talked to MuniBank?"

"It couldn't hurt," she said. "You know, Johnson, you're betting the company on the MDS-316."

I frowned. "All the sales projections look good," I pointed out. "You know, Tanisha, it's not like we're novices at this game. We may be betting the company, but we know precisely what we're doing, and we're reasonably certain of success."

"I'm not arguing, Johnson," Tanisha said. "I'm just pointing out the downside."

"Yes, yes, of course."

I took the shuttle to New York. It was hell getting in from LaGuardia; half the streets were blocked off by the police, it seemed, to guard the way for diplomatic motorcades. There was a veritable feeding-frenzy of global notables at the United Nations -- which, unfortunately, was not far from the MuniBank building. I arrived quite late for my appointment, but MuniBank had the courtesy to meet with me nonetheless.

"MuniBank has always had good relations with you, Mr. Mukerjii," said the white-haired executive, "and we hope to continue doing business with you in the future."

"I'm offering you an opportunity to do business with me now," I said with irritation. "I don't understand your problem. The loan is small by comparison to our existing debt. And our sales projections for the MDS-316...."

The executive sighed and stood up from his massive oaken desk. "Mr. Mukerjii," he said, "may I show you something?"

I stood up also. "Certainly."

He threw a hand around my shoulders and took me to the plate glass window that ran floor to ceiling at the back of the office. "Look out there," he said. "There, that's the New York Stock Exchange, that building. There's the Federal Reserve. That's where Credit Suisse/First Boston is. Salomon Brothers. Goldman Sachs. Nomura's American headquarters. Over there..." He shaded his eyes and peered off across the river. "Yes, over there, on the Jersey side, you can see the back-offices for half the banks in the city. And it's clear enough: you can see the headquarters of Prudential and Bache, off in Newark.

"These buildings, these edifices, these towers of steel and glass -- these are wizards' lairs, Mr. Mukerjii," he said. "Through them flow the lifeblood of the world economy, the capital that determines whether an oil refiner in Indonesia may expand, or a coffee grower in Brazil can sell his crop at a profit. The ley lines run here, Mr. Mukerjii; from all over the world, they converge, via satellite link, fiber-optic cable, microwave communication. That is why we wizards are here, because here is the magic, here flows power we may tap."

He looked at me seriously. "But magic is not science," he said. "It is wild, unpredictable; the wizard who seeks to master it rides a dangerous, capricious mount. Many are the mighty who are cast low; and many are the unworthy who are raised high.

"The essence of our magic is risk -- risk and the management of risk. We serve the world by providing capital; and when a venture fails, it is capital that suffers first. Always, we search for predictability: stable cash-flows, rising sales. But always, we know, the world is wholly unpredictable; so we spread our risks, hedge our bets. And in times of uncertainty, the standards tighten. In times of uncertainty, we demand a premium for the use of money, for then all investments are uncertain. And we lend less, invest less, for in uncertain times, it is best to have investments that are unlikely to decline in value: cash, government securities, precious metals.

"A new factor has appeared within our crystal balls, Mr. Mukerjii; a new element of risk has sped across our Quotrons. The aliens are among us, and no one can say what this may mean."

He turned back to his desk and pressed a key on his keyboard with one manicured finger. New images and data spread across the screen. "You hope to refinance the loan with a public offering, do you not?" he said.

"Yes," I said. "We'd have..."

"Your stock is down six points since trading began today," he said.

I blinked. Six points? "Well... a temporary --"

"The market as a whole is down nearly 20% since contact was first made with the alien craft," he said, and sat down.

"Down today," I pointed out, "up tomorrow."

"The market has been quite volatile," he said, nodding. "That's my point."

"Surely," I said, "if we learn new technology from the aliens, this will redound to the benefit of the world economy."

"Ultimately," he said, shrugging. "But some industries will gain, and others will lose. Some investments will turn out to be disastrous; MuniBank has considerable money tied up in an Argentinian dam project, for instance. If the aliens provide us with the secret of controlled fusion... You see, any change, even one for the better, turns commitments made in ignorance of that change into malinvestment. Ultimately, we stand to gain. Proximately, we stand to lose. And the greater the change, the more wrenching the transition."

He peered at me. "Will your company gain? Will your company lose? Abracadabra," he said, waving his hands, then shrugging. "The auguries are uncertain; the heavens hold their peace. We can only make judgments based on available information. And our available information says: be cautious. Be chary. And Mr. Mukerjii, the debt-to-equity ratio of your company is uncomfortably high -- and higher as your stock declines.

"Mr. Mukerjii, you have been an important customer, and we hope you will be again. And you have every right to demand that a highly placed executive explain why we are turning down your request for a loan. But turn it down we must."

I sighed. "I'll simply have to find an alternate source of capital, then," I said.

He rose and offered me his hand. "And we wish you all good luck in finding one."

I was in my room at the Plaza, gazing morosely at the gilded chandelier and talking on the phone to Tanisha Grant. "I've been talking to Credit Suisse about a Eurobond issue," she said, "and it's doable, but the interest rate is awfully high."

"Look, Tanisha," I said, "is our shelf-registration still current?"

"Yes," she said. That meant we could issue shares on short notice, without the rigamarole of getting new SEC approval.

"Let's sell equity," I said. "Waiting for the market to rise subsequent to the release of the MDS-316 was a good plan, but the market is so volatile now...."

"Uh huh," she said. "Shall I start on it tomorrow morning?"

"Yes," I said. We exchanged a few further words, then hung up.

I lay there for a while longer; there came a knock at the door. 'Room service,' I thought -- I was waiting for dinner -- and went to open the door.

Two gentlemen stood in the hall: one black, one white. They wore identical black suits, black sunglasses, and black fedoras. They both had bulges under their arms. One of them flashed a wallet with some kind of ID. "Mr. Mukerjii?" he said. "I'm Agent Epstein, of the United States Secret Service."

Secret Service? Oh, my god. Data crime. David Greenblatt. Before he came to work for me, he'd been a hacker. He claimed he didn't do that anymore, but there was no way to be certain. And the statue of limitations had surely not expired... The Secret Service has authority over violations of computer security. They'd finally caught up with him.

And as his employer, I was at risk too. Invasion of privacy. Wire fraud. RICO.

Oh, my god.

I slammed the door. "You got a warrant, shove it under the door," I yelled.

"Mr. Mukerjii?" said the door.

I ran to the phone and started dialling my lawyer's number.

"Mr. Mukerjii," said the door, "the president would like to see you."

"What?" I said, receiver in hand.

"You don't have to come if you don't want to," said the door, "but he said it was urgent. We have a military plane waiting, and...."

I put the phone down and went back to the door. "Is this a trick?" I said.

"No trick, sir," said the door.

The president?

I opened the door.

Click here to order from Amazon.com. (Or better yet, buy it at your local independent bookstore.)

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Copyright © 1999 by Greg Costikyan.