Space Madness: Episode VIII
WELCOME TO ORION’S LOBBY
Governor Stone hated riding the Space Elevator. The idea of climbing up a cable suspended by an orbital platform gave him the willies. He couldn’t fathom how the thing stayed up there with nothing to hold it. The Science advisor, what was his name? Nanook? Well, he had patiently tried to explain that it was perfectly safe and the station wouldn’t come plunging down into the city because it was already falling as fast as gravity would make it in order to maintain its geo-synchronous orbit and blah, blah, blah.
It still gave him the willies. He had avoided visiting the orbital platform, unofficially known as “Orion’s Lobby,” for his entire three year term. Now his duties demanded that he greet the visitor on his way to the planet.
No, not a visitor, a returning explorer who had left over 200 years ago on a mission to scout out potential new colonies. 200 years? The Science Advisor, what was his name? Nerdstrom? He had patiently explained that from the perspective of the ship, a mere 5 to 10 years will have passed, due to the effects of traveling at near the speed of light and blah, blah, blah.
Governor Stone hated science. He was perfectly content to deal with the day to day goings on on the planet: legal issues, moral issues, whether the mural on the wall of the museum would be construed as offensive to anyone. The Science Advisor, what was his name? Nosferatu? He had patiently explained that the scientists and engineers were the ones keeping the settlement on Orion habitable, that the planet had no underground oil reserves, that methane and deuterium had to be mined from the gas giant, unofficially referred to as “Orion’s Lawyer,” in order to power the lights on the surface and blah, blah, blah.
Fine, let the scientists and engineers keep the lights on while I deal with the important things, like whether public shouting should be illegal.
The elevator stopped. The doors opened into a warehouse sized room, filled with lots of containers and mining equipment. A small man wearing an orange jumpsuit approached. “Governor Stone, welcome to Orion’s Lobby. If you will follow me you can be briefed on the approaching ship. Oh, make sure the soles of your shoes are magnetized, unless you want to float all the way to the briefing room.”
Governor Stone obliged. He strapped a piece of magnetized metal to the bottom of each of his shoes. His feet may have been anchored to the floor, but his stomach certainly wasn’t.
“Sorry about the weightlessness, Governor. We can’t generate artificial gravity in the part of the station that’s tied to the cable. I must say, you’re holding up pretty well, most people chuck the first time they visit this part of the station. We have a hell of a time cleaning up floating bits of half-digested food.”
The Governor’s face turned green. “You’re not helping.”
The little man in the orange jumpsuit nodded in apology and moved on. “This way, sir.”
Governor Stone followed the little man in the orange jumpsuit to a hatch located on one of the walls. The hatch opened, revealing a small spinning room with two more hatches attached to the sides.
“Grab the handles to orient yourself. Remember, the walls will become the floor.”
Stone grabbed one of the handles and opened one of the hatches, revealing a ladder that led into another elevator. He climbed in, the hatch closed above him, and the elevator started to move. Governor Stone could feel his stomach settling back into place as the gravity level started to increase back to a more comfortable level.
The elevator stopped. The door opened with a whooshing sound. This was a completely unnecessary sound for an elevator door to make, but apparently the engineers who built the place enjoyed it. Some kind of homage to ancient Earth literature about space travel.
The little man in the orange jumpsuit led Governor Stone down a hallway to the briefing room.
He took a seat, exchanged greetings with General Shazam or whatever his name was, and the lead technician for the orbital platform, Dr. Mooney.
“What’s the situation, boys?”
The general switched a viewscreen on that displayed the current position of the incoming ship. “The visitor, Captain Pappas, will be in position to dock in two days. He’ll board the station and undergo a twenty four hour quarantine, after which he will be debriefed and undergo some minor societal readjustment therapy. He’ll probably be disappointed that we discontinued the search for more colonies only ten years after he left.”
Governor Stone nodded wisely. “How come he’s the only one on the ship? Didn’t he have a crew when he left?”
The general sat down and sighed. “We have only had intermittent contact with Pappas since he came into range. He did tell us that his crew died on the planet they were scouting. But given the known long-term psychological effects of deep space travel, we’ll have to investigate that claim to be sure.”
Stone’s eyes bulged. “You mean he may have murdered his own crew? And we’re going to let this man run around on our settlement?”
The general, who was rumored to have never smiled, did not smile. “We don’t know anything right now, that’s why we’re going to have the investigation.”
Governor Stone did not like the sound of this. Nobody had left this system for deep space in over one hundred years. There hadn’t been any arrivals in over fifty. Stories were passed down over the generations of the horrors of deep space, of crews gone insane that were driven to cannibalism and suicide. Someone had done a study a few years back estimating that there could be twenty to thirty empty spaceships floating in interstellar space, abandoned by their delusional crews, never to be seen again. “What do you think, Dr. Mooney?”
Dr. Mooney looked up from a computer pad. “Well, the fact that he had the wherewithal to get the ship back here without a crew suggests he probably hasn’t lost all his marbles. He can’t have progressed beyond stage 3 of space madness.”
“Stage 3? What’s that?”
“Stage 3 manifests itself as anxiety, usually identified by finding fingernail marks in the walls of the ship.”
Governor Stone stroked his chin knowingly. “What stage of space madness is killing and eating your crew?”
“Stage 7 is killing your crew. Stage 8 is eating them.”
“I see,” said Governor Stone. Then he realized he didn’t see after all. “Who came up with all these stages, anyway?”
Dr. Mooney didn’t like explaining things to politicians. “The stages were identified by some of the early pioneers of space travel, when all of the human colonies were being established. It’s what we have to go on, given that nobody around here has ventured off into deep space for such a long time.”
“I see. So how long until I can introduce this Captain Paper to the general public during a reasonably grand homecoming ceremony?”
Both the general and Dr. Mooney restrained themselves from slapping their own foreheads. The general spoke up. “We’ll let you know when he’s available.”
“Right, well, I shall prepare myself to meet this Captain Parthenon in two days. Make sure there is ample security. I don’t want to get eaten.”