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EPISODE I: THE CAPTAIN NEEDS HIS PILLS
Captain Paps woke up in a cold sweat. Another nightmare. He had been alone on his ship, making the long trip back to the Orion colony for six months and counting. Six months of nightmares about what happened to his crew on that uncharted alien world, and about what happened afterward.
“The captain needs his his pills,” he muttered to himself as he stumbled to the Space Medicine Cabinet. It used to be funny that the crew put the word “space” in front of every mundane object on the ship. The Space Table, the Space Pepper Shaker, the Dehydrated Space Unspecified Food Stuff, the Space Spork, and of course, the Space Antidepressants. Paps still used these affectations to remind him of some of the good times with his crew. He didn’t want his only remaining memories to be what happened on that planet, that mission that started off so routine and ended so horribly.
“Four left, then I lose it.” He swallowed the pill, erased the number 5 written on the Space White Board that was next to the Space Medicine Cabinet, and wrote the number 4 on the board. Below the number was the phrase “Days left of space sanity.”
Now to take care of the work for the day. Check the navigational array, make any course corrections. Check the communications array, look for any transmissions. There are never any signals this deep in interstellar space, but one must always check, just in case. Check the Grav sensors, no uncharted black holes or rogue planets in the area. Life support, air circulation, water recycling system, food stores. Enough to keep an entire crew of six busy for the day. Now everything must be checked by the one man left.
Paps stared at the blank communications screen on the bridge for about twenty minutes. The daily tasks of keeping the ship running while in deep space were becoming harder every day. Off to the next…
Paps reeled, knocked his head on the console behind him and fell to the floor. There was someone in the Space Captain’s Chair. This someone had just spoken to him. This someone was, for some reason, wearing a pinstriped suit and a fedora. Clearly this someone was a hallucination.
“Oh, come on! I’ve got four days left before this is supposed to start happening!”
“Before what starts happening?”
“Before I go completely crazy and start having conversations with hallucinations!”
“I can assure you that I am not a hallucination.”
“What stage of space madness is the one where the hallucinations start thinking they are real? Is that stage 5? I must have missed going through the first four stages. Oh God, stage 6 is thinking you’re off course and you veer right into a neutron star because it’s telling you to go toward the light!”
Paps collapsed onto the floor, sobbing. The strange visitor let out a long sigh that seemed to originate somewhere on the other side of the galaxy. “First contact, a grand occasion.”
The visitor knelt in front of Paps’ collapsed convulsing body and put his hand on his shoulder. This had the opposite effect of what was presumably intended, since Paps couldn’t feel the hand touching his shoulder.
“Look, Captain. Whether I am a hallucination or not doesn’t matter. You have no one else to talk to, and will continue to have no one else to talk to for another two years or so. You might as well accept me for the company, real or imagined, that I provide. If it makes you feel better, you can even call me Hal. You wouldn’t be able to pronounce my real name anyway.”
This seemed to calm Paps down a little. “So you’re saying I should accept stage 5?”
“Yes. For what it’s worth, that has been known to delay the transition to stage 6.”
Paps slowly climbed back up to a standing position, trying to compose himself. This was, after all, only the third strangest thing to happen to him during all his travels, and for the moment it seemed much less painful than the other two. He could handle this. “So… Hal. If I pretend for the time being that you are not a hallucination, what the hell are you doing on my ship?”
“You looked like you could use some company, and I’ve never met a human before. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“So you’re an alien. I suppose that somehow explains the suit and the hat. Other than that, you look human.”
“Ah, yes, this isn’t what I really look like. This image is a direct projection onto your retina. It’s human-looking just to make the conversation easier. I’m not really here.”
Paps didn’t know he had such a vivid imagination. He kept playing along because, well, what else was he going to do? “Then where are you?”
“Everywhere, everywhen. I exist in all of space and time. Oh, I guess that means I really am here, too. I would have shown myself sooner, but it took some time syncing your audio responses to your visual ones.”
“What am I, a TV?”
“Well, you’re a little more complicated than that. More like a videophone.”
Paps was more than a little shocked by the thought of his brain being tinkered with like used electronics. He pressed on with the questions. “So, this retina projection thing, does that mean if a real human walked in here right now, he wouldn’t be able to see or hear you?”
“No. He wouldn’t.”
“Well, that’s convenient. You’re not making a very strong case for being real.”
“You’re still talking to me, aren’t you?”
“Like you said, I have no one else to talk to, real or imagined.” Paps took a deep breath, he still had to make sure the ship was running smoothly and he was being distracted by a hallucination named Hal. He wanted to stop, but couldn’t. It had been so long since he had talked to anyone that even this was a welcome respite from the silence.
“If you want to check your ship’s vitals, go ahead. We can talk while you do that. Although I assure you that everything is running smoothly and there are no unusual phenomena in the vicinity.”
Paps eyed the visitor suspiciously. “Thanks, but I think I’ll check it all out myself, just to be sure.”
Paps went to the life support screen to check that the CO2 levels were normal, they were. “You say you exist in all space and time, does that mean you know the future?”
The radiation levels were not anywhere near dangerous levels. “Alright, humor me, what’s in store for me?”
“Anything specific you want to know?”
The water recycling system was working perfectly. No contaminants. “Something simple, like will I make it to the Orion Colony intact?”
Hal put his hand on his chin in a thoughtful manner. He needed to practice human gestures, for those seemed to communicate just as much information as human speech did. “I can’t tell you that. It would violate the laws of causality.”
No change on the status of the food stores. “Oh, are those laws something your species is sworn to protect? Would you get some sort of space ticket if you violate them?”
“No, it is physically impossible for me to tell you. Unless I lie and say yes, definitely.”
Paps’ head was beginning to throb. This was not a conversation he would have expected to have with an imaginary alien. “I thought you said you knew the future.”
Paps was running out of things to check that might cause hallucinations. “But you are unable to tell me what happens there? Then? Whatever?”
Paps had to sit down. It was impossible to check all the gauges with confusing thoughts of imaginary aliens that know the future but are unable to tell you swimming around in his head. This situation might be upgraded to the second strangest thing that has ever happened to him before the day is done. “Huh?”
Hal sighed a sigh that seemed to say, “how can I dumb this down enough for you to understand?” Sighing was another human gesture he had determined was important for effective communication. “The laws of causality cannot be violated by anyone, even creatures that know the future.”
Paps was still confused. He was also thinking of going down to the Space Med Bay to do a full brain scan. “Eh?”
“Think of me, or this image, as an access terminal to the information I possess. When you ask me a question about the future, this access terminal has to send the information in your question to my brain. My brain has to interpret the meaning of the question, look up the answer, and send it back to the access terminal. This takes time. Enough time so that when the information gets back to the access terminal, the future event that was originally asked about will now lie in the past. You process information the same way, but your sensory organs and your brain are so close together that you don’t notice the time lag.”
Paps chewed on this thought for a while. He had always found relativity and causality a bit confusing, and was now being slapped in the face by them. “So… you know the future, but you can’t tell me the future. Ok. Look, I’ll humor you about this as long as you don’t ask me to go on any crazy alien missions for you.”
“Oh, of course I won’t. At least not until you get to know me better.”
STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT EPISODE: THE CRAZY CAPTAIN’S ALIEN MISSION!