ZENO’S MISSION TO NOWHERE
A man walks into a bar. The bartender asks him what he wants to drink. “Well,” he says, “the end of the world’s coming. Hostile aliens are gonna blow this place to kingdom come and there’s nothing we can do about it. My wife is at home recording her last thoughts to be sent back to Earth during the next transmission, but who knows if anyone will ever see it. Everyone on Orion is scared and tense and ready to snap. You got anything for that?”
The bartender stroked his chin thoughtfully. “How about a hard lemonade?”
The man slammed his forehead against the bar. “Perfect.”
Something was different about Hal. The last few days he seemed more focused on the task of getting the ship back out into space. He was no longer as interested in the minutia of human behavior, no longer amused by the strange ways they went about getting things done. He also didn’t speak as much. When he did speak, he was overtly giving Paps commands, and Paps would always follow those commands, whether he wanted to or not. It was difficult for Paps to even think about the changes in Hal’s behavior. If he thought about it for any length of time, Hal would…
“I’m very excited, Captain. The crew has been assembled and they are ready to meet their new commanding officer. The scientists and engineers have finished their assessment of the ship’s technology and are ready to start reverse engineering it. It’ll take them several years to build just the simple things, but it’s good that you gave them something new to think about.”
Paps had been lost in thought, wandering around his ship. He looked around to get his bearings. He was in the engine room. Hal was the only one with him. “What are you, Hal? I haven’t made a single decision for myself since you showed up. You always push me to do things that I don’t want to do. I always end up doing them, though.”
“If you think that I’m the one giving the orders around here, you are sorely mistaken.”
Paps had had enough of Hal’s cryptic statements. “Then who is giving the orders around here?”
Hal had a mischievous grin on his face. “You are, my good man. You just don’t know it yet.”
Paps was about to retort with something unpleasant, but he heard footsteps coming toward him. He stood up straight in an attempt to look more captain-y.
Dr. Capitate walked in. “The crew is ready to meet you, sir.” She looked around for someone else in the room, but found nothing. “Were you talking to yourself in here?”
Paps walked past her with all the captain’s authority he could muster. “Yes. Are you coming?”
“Of course.” She made a little mark in her notebook, then followed Paps to the bridge.
The crew eagerly awaited the arrival of the captain. Well, Professor Garvey eagerly awaited his arrival. He had convinced himself that they were going to search for his mysterious black hole. It wasn’t a black hole, since it didn’t have enough mass. Twenty years of observation and analysis had confirmed that much, even if no one else believed him. But it didn’t emit any light. This mission was going to make him a legend.
The Worm, Wendy Crowley, was not as eager. She was downright angry. She had been imprisoned for making military secrets public. Military secrets kept from the small populace of a colony that had never known war, for the simple reason that there was nobody around to war with. Now she was forced to go on a secret mission for that same military.
The engineer, Richard Polk, was indifferent. It didn’t matter whether he was on a spaceship, space station, or sewer, someone was going to tell him what to do, and he was going to do it. He might do a few other things, too, just to keep life interesting, but this was just another job.
Paps walked onto the bridge to finally meet his crew. This was their first day of duty, and their first duty was to get to know the ship. Dr. Capitate walked in behind him, carrying that notebook of hers. She had personally recruited each one of them, and each one of them hated her notebook.
“Welcome to my ship, ladies and gentlemen.”
Richard raised his and and cleared his throat.
“Yes, Engineer Polk.”
“Does this ship have a name?”
This was clearly something that was on his, if nobody else’s, mind. “The official designation is Orion Scout Ship 3.”
“What happened to the other two?”
Paps already felt himself losing control of the situation. “They left Orion at the same time I did, two hundred years ago. According to General Salazar, they never came back.”
Richard kept on with his line of questions. “Seeing that this ship has gone through significant upgrades since it first left our fair planet, shouldn’t we give it a new name? Colony Scout Ship 3 is so boring and unimaginative. How about something like The Flying Buttress?”
Wendy interrupted. “How about shut the hell up?”
Paps’ new computer technician was ready to take a swing at his new engineer less than two minutes after meeting each other. This was going swimmingly. “Tell you what, Mr. Polk. When you are off duty, you can come up with a name and submit it to me. If I approve, then we’ll go with it. Now, I want everyone here to familiarize themselves with…”
Wendy interrupted again. “Hold on, I’m not going to stand by and watch this idiot name the ship.”
Paps sighed, and glanced in the direction of Dr. Capitate. She was having a hard time getting all of this into her notebook. He decided that shouting was appropriate right about now. “Fine, neither of you can name the ship! That duty will go to Professor Garvey over here!”
Professor Garvey got very excited about this prospect. “Well, um, I’ll have to give it some thought. I mean, here we are about to embark on a great adventure on the fastest ship known to mankind, yet when we get to our destination, we may find we haven’t gone anywhere at all… ooh! Zeno!”
That was good enough for Paps. “Zeno it is!”
Wendy the Worm and Richard the prankster engineer looked angry, but had to admit that at the very least, Zeno was better than Colony Scout Ship 3.
Paps was ready to get down to business, again. He hoped no more distractions came up. “Now, for your day one official duties. Engineer Polk, get down to the engine room and find out everything you can about… the engines.”
That sentence could have gone better. “Professor Garvey, you’re my navigator. I want you to familiarize yourself with the Nav console and then run an analysis of possible evasive maneuvers within the solar system. Computer Specialist Crowley…”
“Just call me The Worm.”
Paps squinted. “You want me to put the word ‘the’ in front, too?”
“Yes. The authorities on Orion wouldn’t let me officially change my name, but I figure we’re out of their jurisdiction now.”
Paps began to rub his temples. “How about just… Worm?”
The Worm shot up from her chair righteously. “No! You wouldn’t just call The Blue Rocket ‘Blue Rocket.’ That would imply that there are more of them. There is only one ‘The Worm,’ and that’s me!”
Paps was losing his grip on the situation. “What’s The Blue Rocket?”
The Worm huffed. “The greatest hero Orion has ever known. He fights injustice, knocks asteroids away from the planet, and…”
Engineer Polk butted in. “He’s a cartoon character.”
Paps scratched the back of his head. “Ok, your name is now officially ‘The Worm.’ First name ‘The,’ last name ‘Worm.’ Satisfied?”
Engineer Polk raised his hand. “Can I change my name, too?”
Paps was completely derailed. What was he doing again? Oh yes, giving orders. “Now then, Computer Specialist The Worm, your orders are to decrypt the security system on this ship.”
Hal had been standing idly by, but now he was suddenly agitated. “Captain, that’s not a good idea.”
Paps pressed on. “I don’t know how much you have been told about this ship, but…”
“Think about what you’re asking your crew to do, Captain. You are putting them in danger. The ship might retaliate.”
“…all of the upgrades, the advanced technology on this ship, and especially the computer security system, are of alien design. On my trip back, the ship did a lot of things on its own and was not always under my control.”
The Worm was licking her lips in excitement. The others had looks of horror on their faces.
“That’s why you, The Worm, are vital to this mission. I want you to crack the computer, I want you to get into every system and take control of it.”
Hal was pacing around the bridge, throwing imaginary objects across it, making huffing noises. If he was able to shut cabinet doors at the moment, he would have shut them loudly.
Paps leaned forward, face to face with The Worm. “Are you up for this.”
The Worm was positively giddy. “I haven’t met a computer system I couldn’t hack, Captain. Bring it on.”
Hal’s anger subsided into a resigned sadness. “Captain, you may have doomed your crew. Just like the last one.”
Paps looked at the rest of the crew. “And what about you? Are you ready for this mission? We don’t know what we’re doing, we don’t know where it will take us, and we don’t know if we’ll survive.”
Professor Garvey and Engineer Polk both nodded, still a little scared. “Yes, sir.”
Dr. Capitate was on her second notebook already. “Orders for me, sir?”
Paps looked at her, hoping she would go away. “Keep taking notes, I guess.”