SPACE FRIENDS INDEED: Chapter 1

David Stephens got into his car and said "Freyja Home." "Fasten your seat belt, please." said the car in a soft feminine voice. He did so, smiling at his absent-mindedness. The vehicle unplugged itself and maneuvered out of the parking lot of Best Friend Robots, Inc.

David sighed contentedly, relishing the prospect of the twenty-minute trip without pressures. it had been a hard but exciting day. His mind was still filled with the problems of designing the next version of his robot brain. He tried to clear it with thoughts of his wife Kathy and their three children. He and Kathy were still very much in love after all these years. Being with her was also intellectually stimulating. She was an astrobiology professor at the University of Wisconsin. She might have some new information about her current research project, the organic goo on Saturn's moon Titan. At ten, Anne already had the makings of a scientist. Bob, at six, was near the top of his class. Baby Jenny would begin to walk soon. It would be interesting to see how their robotic cook and housekeeper was handling its tasks. It was one of the company's products that he was testing. So was this car and Kathy's. Both used his robot brain, though with different mechanicals. He chuckled: Those old mythologies were a handy source of unusual names for the company's robots. It had been Kathy's idea. Her hobby of amateur archaeology had exposed her to them. She had named her car Balder after one of the handsomest of the Norse gods. He had named his Freyja, after one of the most beautiful of the goddesses. Their robotic maid was named Minnie, but when she was commanded to act as a bodyguard she responded to the name Minotaur.

His reverie was interrupted by the announcement "Here we are." as the car entered his driveway. The garage door opened at its command. It moved into the space marked for it on the floor and plugged itself in to top off its batteries. Kathy's car was already in its space and plugged in.

David went through the door into the house. He sniffed appreciatively the aroma of beef stroganoff. In the kitchen Kathy and the two older children were watching Minnie, the robot cook, finish the preparations for dinner. Her precise movements were beautiful to see. The holographic projector which was her face showed an expression of rapt attention. She took the apple pie out of the oven with hot mits, because the heat would have damaged her plastic skin and its sensors. Putting the beef stroanoff on the table, she added the sour cream. David felt a sense of deep satisfaction. The company had hired expert chefs to help develop the "cook" software module.

Minnie began to lay out the dishes and silverware. Bob felt that he was big enough to be useful. At instructions from Kathy Minnie gave him some silverware and showed him how to place it. He soon tired of the game. Minnie continued with an amused smile on the holographic projector that served her as a face. She brought the cooling applle pie and cut it into sections for the four dessert plates. the rest would go in the refrigerator for another meal.

Dinner now being ready, 10-year-old Anne brought baby Jenny in her basinet. Minnie went to sit on her special chair, which had charging coils in the seat. She projected an expression of alertness, signifying that she was ready to respond if requested. The family seated themselves and began to eat.

Kathy said: "Good work, Minnie. Just the right amount of paprika in the beef stroganoff. And these vegetables are just right, crisp and tender."

David smiled his aproval at Kathy. It was important to praise the robot, because its principal motives were to please and protect its masters.

Even the children made no protestsabout the vegetables. Bob was excited about his beginning classes in computer programming. Anne described what her social studies teacher had said that day about the effects of rising carbon dioxide levels.

At the conclusion of the meal, Minnie began to clear the table. The family went to the living room to watch the evening news.

The top news stories were about the weather, as was often the case these days. California was withering in another multi-year drought. The Outback of Australia was being deluged. Rio de Janeiro was sizzling.

The news anchor switched to an interview with a scientist from the University whom both Kathy and David knew. He noted that rising sea levels were threatening New York and Florida. New Orleans would soon have to be abandoned. The inhabitants of the Pacific island nation of Vanuto were already thinking of where they could move. All this had been predicted in the early years of the twenty-first century. Now at mid-Century the predictions were being realized. He wound up with warnings that the climate might reach a "tipping point", where great changes could occur with catastrophic rapidity. The Anchor extended the interview. What could be done? A veil of fine particles could be placed in the stratosphere. This would cool the planet as happened after a large volcanic eruption. But this would be only a stopgap measure. Burning of fossil fuels would have to stop. So would deforestation. And reforestation must be begun.

The news stream moved on to politics, which were the usual mess. In this presidential election year the candidates were debating acrimoniously about what should be done about climate change. The most conservative denied that there was a crisis. The most liberal were advocating various impractical schemes, such as universal belt-tightening or putting up a giant sunscreen in space.

The international scene was roiled by refugees fleeing coastal areas in danger of flooding and storm surges. The few dictators were still enriching themselves. North Korea had exploded a nuclear bomb 100 kilometers above South Korea to show that it could. The resulting electromagnetic pulse had disrupted the power grids of both countries. The reigning monarch had blamed his scientists, though it was known that they had warned him.

David hit the off button on the remote. The 3d figures vanished, leaving only a glossy wall across the room. Beside him Kathy looked concerned. During the news her hand had stolen into his. Bob was sprawled on the floor, playing with his smartphone. Anne came up to him. He was proud of her. She had earned her amateur radio license at eight. She had a small station of her own, but she liked to operate her father's station, with its many antennas and higher power.

Now she was asking for the favor. He assented, because tonight he was inclined to pursue his other hobby of amateur astronomy. He smiled. She was developing a budding interest in radio astronomy. She liked to point his 15-meter beam antenna at Sagitarius and listen to the black hole at the center of the galaxy, or to point the ten-meter beam at Jupiter and listen to the old pagan god talking to himself. He had promised her that one day they would try to pick up a pulsar. With a final warning that she must be in bed at her usual time, he stood up to get ready.

Kathy came with him to make sure he was warmly dressed. Global warming or not, January in Wisconsin was still cold. But she had ulterior motives. This became apparent when she raised her head for a kiss and said "Davy, do you remember how we met at the University's astronomy club when we were both grad students. That started all these wonderful years. Now I have a feeling that something really wonderful is about to happen. It will be in time for our twelfth wedding anniversary."

"Great hearts feel alike. I've had a hunch like that for a while. Where could these feelings have come from?"

"It couldn't feel so wonderful if it wasn't good."

The temperature outside was a brisk minus 10 degrees Celsius. The sky was clear. The moon was near its first quarter. It and the stars gave enough light to see one's way about. Thankfully, conservation measures which were part of the effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions had decreased light pollution to the point where it would not interfere with his observations. The silence was so deep that he could hear the occasional soft hum of an antenna rotator.

He went to the telescope and uncovered it. Where should he look? Maybe he would see a new variable star in that relatively empty piece of sky. The American Association of Variable Star Observers would be pleased. There were a few stars scattered about, barely twinkling in the dry, still air. But what was this? One star was twinkling in a peculiar manner. As he gazed at it, letters and words began forming themselves in his mind. It was sending Morse code! Something about greetings. And it's color was peculiar also, green. Was it a laser? How could someone pull off a prank like that? The code paused, and he could see a tiny, faint disk. A planet? But it was where no planet should be. Was it just in the same line of sight as the laser? The code resumed.

Anne's voice broke into his thoughts. "Dad! Dad! the ham bands are full of talk about a funny signal on 6 meters. Somebody is sending CW and saying that they are aboard a spaceship as big as the earth. I can hear it too!"

He took his eye from the scope and glanced up at his 6-meter beam. It was pointed in the same direction as the instrument. Then he looked at Anne. She had rushed out of the house without her coat and was already beginning to shiver. He took her hand and said "Come on, Honey. Let's get inside!"

In the ham shack the dots and dashes were pouring from the speaker at about ten words per minute. The signal strength was S7, well above the noise level. Prank or no prank, he wanted a recording. He set up a file and started the decoder. Letters began to crawl across the computer screen. He texted Kathy, asking her to join them. As an astrobiologist she would at least enjoy the joke. She came carrying Jenny, whom she was nursing. Taking a seat, she listened to his description of his observations and looked at the computer screen.

Anne had been listening also. Now she went to her own station and began chatting excitedly with her over-the-air friends. Not everyone could receive the 6-meter signal, but anyone who knew Morse code and had a good pair of binoculars could read the "spaceship's" laser transmissions.

They seemed to be in a number of languages. Some were indecipherable. One was Spanish. Another Kathy identified as Arabic. As an amateur archaelogist she had spent some time in the Middle East and Egypt.

The English message was straightforward: "Greetings peoples of Earth, we have been asked to come to your aid at this crisis in your civilization. We inhabit a spaceship as big as your own planet and have solved many of the problems confronting you."

The signal was growing weaker. David wondered why. Perhaps there was some sort of atmospheric disturbance. But the decrease was smooth, not fluttery. It looked as though the signal was drifting off the antenna's sweet spot. An idea struck him. He got to his feet and reached for his coat.

"Where are you going Davy?" asked Kathy.

"I want to have another look through the scope."

He had to adjust the telescope to get the star back into the field of view, but the adjustment was in the direction he suspected. There it was, a tiny disk flashing green Morse code. He texted Anne and asked her to rotate the antenna for maximum signal strength. Looking up, he saw it swing from side to side, wriggle, then settle on the new direction in which the telescope was pointing.

Back in the ham shack he said: "Well, Kathy, maybe this is what our premonitions were about. Whatever that thing is, it's not turning with the earth. The telescope and the antenna both had to be moved to compensate for the Earth's rotation. So it's not terrestrial. It hasn't moved against the background stars, so it's not in close earth orbit. If the little disk I see is really the size of the Earth it's in the outer reaches of the solar system."