Space Madness: Episode XV

SCIENCE IS TEDIOUS

Richard Polk, the engineer, was sitting alone in his quarters, lost in thought. He was supposed to be in the engine room performing the utterly hopeless task of determining how they worked.

He decided to start with something simpler, like figuring out how the gravity worked on this ship. Hanging from the ceiling were several Space Paper Cups attached to strings. The ventilation in the room was turned off, to prevent air currents from blowing them around. Of course the stagnant air caused to breathe heavily, defeating the purpose of shutting off the ventilation in the first place, and the Space Paper Cups on strings steadfastly refused to stay still long enough for him to make a proper measurement.

On the floor were four ramps, inclined at slightly different angles. He had spent the better part of the last four hours rolling steel balls down these ramps and timing them. He also rolled the steel balls across the floor and charted their paths, mapping out any irregularities and rough patches he could find on the Faux Space Redwood.

Spread out on his desk were papers filled with measurement data and calculations, complete with scribbles in the margins about where the gravitational source might be, and possible systematic errors in his methodology. He planned to go through the data with a fine tooth comb and make impressive looking graphs out of it.

The door to his quarters slid open. Wendy The Worm looked as if she had something important to say, but was completely distracted by all the cups on strings, inclined planes, steel balls and papers strewn haphazardly about the place.

She opened her mouth to speak. Before she could say anything she realized she could barely breathe the air in the room and began coughing uncontrollably. She staggered back into the hallway to catch her breath.

Engineer Polk wandered out after her to see if she was alright. She looked up and hissed at him. “What the hell are you doing in there? Aren’t you supposed to be in the engine room?”

Polk giggled. “Well, aren’t we little miss follow instructions to the letter? That must be the behavioral engineering talking. Oh, the wonders of the modern prison system, turning rebellious teenagers into upstanding citizens.”

The Worm stared at him as if trying to burn a hole through him with her eyes.

“If you must know, I’m testing the gravity on the ship. It’s an easier system to figure out than the engines.”

The Worm walked back over to the open doorway and eyed the chaos in the room with contempt. “You never heard of a hand scanner?” She unclipped a small device from her belt, pressed a couple of buttons, and placed in on the floor just outside Polk’s quarters. She didn’t want to enter that room until the stench of primitive science left.

After a couple of seconds the scanner beeped and she picked it back up. “There you go, point nine two g’s. Deviation from the vertical of point six degrees.”

Polk threw his hands up in the air. “Wow, that is genius. Why didn’t I think of that? I mean, an electronic device to measure the gravity in the room? Brilliant! I would have never worked that out.”

The Worm resumed her steely gaze.

Polk put his hands into his pockets and pulled out his own hand scanner. “Of course that’s the first thing I did. But here’s the thing. That scanner is lying to you.”

The Worm blinked. “What?”

“Oh yes. Mine said the same thing. But something in my gut was suspicious, and I always trust my gut. Especially near lunchtime. So I decided to figure it out the old fashioned way. No gadgets with any kind of wireless network connections. I would have preferred to have a bubble level, but I couldn’t find one on the ship, so I hung some strings from the ceiling, rolled some balls down some ramps and timed them, worked out the results and got different results than the scanner.”

The worm sighed. “Have you considered that these old timey experiments just simply aren’t that accurate?”

Polk laughed. “This isn’t my first ‘old timey’ experiment. I know what I’m doing.”

“Ok, I’ll bite. What were your results?”

“Point nine two g’s. Zero deviation from the vertical.”

It was now The Worm’s turn to get sarcastic. “Off by half a degree. That couldn’t possibly be measurement error when you’re doing everything by hand.”

“Go ahead and poo-poo my results. I worked on The Lobby for several years. I can feel the slope of the floor of every room I walk into, and I’m telling you, there is none here.”

The Worm chewed on this for a moment. She paced around the hallway to see if she could determine which way was uphill. She couldn’t. But she had never been in artificial gravity before, so that didn’t mean much. She switched her tone from sarcastic to patronizing. “So why would the scanner lie to us? What sort of deep dark secret can this ship be hiding that it creates a fictional deviation angle?”

Polk shrugged. “I don’t know. But Zeno’s systems have gone to a lot of trouble to hack into the scanners so they’ll give off false readings, which raises another question. What else is this ship hiding from us?”

The Worm finally began to worry. She hated secrets. They always hid some method of holding power over others. When she was younger she was willing to risk her life exposing them.

Polk continued. “I’ve got another doozy for you. We’re not docked anymore, haven’t been for hours. The ship’s not spinning, so what’s generating all the gravity in here?”

“Stop it!” The Worm was seething at this point. She knew that this so called mystery was a minor one and was not worth her time. If there was something bigger going on, she would find it by cracking the computer system. “Don’t tell anyone about this, especially not the captain. He’s got some sort of weird connection with this ship, and I can tell he’s hiding something from us. Don’t tell the shrink, either. I don’t trust her.”

“You obviously don’t trust anybody.”

“No, I don’t. But now I’m trusting you. Don’t start feeling special or anything, but you’re the only person here without a hidden agenda.”

“Oh, that’s sweet.”

“Shut up! Look, I’ve been trying to access the main computer. There’s a lot of access to surface systems that looks pretty normal for an old ship. But access to subsystems is completely blocked. Not blocked in any way I can cheat my way through, but blocked by something I’ve never seen before.”

Polk tried to wrap his head around this. He couldn’t. “What the hell are you talking about?”

The worm took a deep breath. “There’s a second computer system behind the first one. Definitely alien, possibly intelligent, possibly even conscious. It doesn’t react to queries and commands the way a normal system does. It’s like…” She searched her brain for a description. “… it looks at what you want, considers it, and ultimately tells you no. Or, sometimes it just creates an unrelated problem, one that you need to solve immediately, just to get you to stop asking.”

Polk scratched his head. “So?”

“So, I don’t know. I have to do some more digging to find out more. But for right now, this stays between you and me.”

Polk scratched his head some more. “Alright, in the meantime, what do we tell the captain?”

“You’re supposed to be figuring out the engines, right? Have you made any progress on that?”

Polk stopped scratching his head and started rubbing the back of his neck. “I have no idea what the basic operating principles are, much less anything specific. The best I’ve got is what the computer showed me about acceleration curves, some figures on maneuverability, and some power usage statistics. But that’s all stuff the captain can get by pushing a button. Besides, I wouldn’t be surprised if the computer was lying about those numbers, as well.”

“Put it in a report and give it to him. That way he knows you’re keeping busy.”

“Oh, I already did that. It’s on the desk ready to put Captain Paps to sleep whenever he decides to read it. I’m an expert at making it look like I’m working really hard.”

The Worm didn’t laugh. “Where is the captain, anyway?”

“He’s on the bridge with Harvey. They were trying to figure out optimum locations for the defense platforms using the Nav computer, last time I checked. Neither one of them seemed very interested in the task, though.”

The worm narrowed her eyes at Polk. “What do you mean, last time you checked?”

“Oh, I put a spy cam on the bridge to alert me when someone was coming. Wanna see what they’re up to now? I’m sure it’s really boring.”

The Worm wasn’t sure if the air in Polk’s quarters was safe to breathe yet. “You ventilate your room yet?”

“Should smell like a pine forest in springtime after a rain by now. C’mon, let’s spy.”

Polk cleared some papers off his desk and placed a device the size of a poker chip on it. He waved his hand over it in a way that made The Worm question his intelligence. The device made a clicking noise and began to project a black and white image on the wall.

“Sorry for the low resolution. This ship has so much wireless chatter I couldn’t find a decent piece of unused bandwidth.”

The projection showed Captain Paps and Harvey hunched over a holographic display. Harvey was very excited about something. “My original project was to create an interactive three dimensional map of our galaxy, or at least our local corner of it.”

Paps rubbed his eyes and attempted to sound interested. “So what are we looking at here?”

Harvey continued enthusiastically. “This is a map based on images taken from Earth. See, there we are.”

He pointed at a star on the map that looked like all the rest to Paps.

“I see.” He didn’t.

Harvey switched the display to another map which looked identical. “This map was made from a combination of images taken from Earth and images from Proxima Centauri. As you can see, it’s virtually identical.”

Polk could not contain his amusement. “Man, that Harvey is a laugh a minute. He should start his own one man show.”

The Worm didn’t dignify Polk with a response. “Look at the Captain. He keeps turning his head back and forth. It’s like there’s someone else in the room with him.”

Polk turned his attention away from Harvey’s gesticulations. “Oh, come on. He’s probably just fighting to stay awake. It’s like when you start to doze off in a meeting and you jerk your head upward to fight it off, causing everyone in the room to realize you were falling asleep, and the boss to call you into his office for a good talking to, where you can start the process all over again.”

The Worm was unfazed by Polk’s useless observation. “No, he’s not falling asleep. He looks more… annoyed.”

Harvey had been talking uninterrupted during this entire exchange. “Now this map, which took me ten years on and off to put together, combines data from Earth, Proxima Centauri, and Orion. It took me so long because of this one tiny discrepancy…” Harvey pressed a button and the display zoomed in toward a small cluster of stars. “…here. This star, which I’ve named HG-001, is not where it should be.”

Paps now looked both annoyed and bored. A red circle appeared around a nondescript star. Harvey continued. “When I compared the position with the one calculated from just the Earth and Centauri data, I found a discrepancy of 50 million kilometers.”

Paps jerked his head to an upright position. “Harvey, you more than anyone should know that’s hardly any distance at all. It’s not even the size of a planetary orbit. You can’t possibly be that precise.”

Harvey scoffed. “My map took so long to make because my calculations were done to the best precision in history. My error bars were 10 million kilometers. There’s virtually no chance I got this wrong.”

Paps was curious in a how much longer is this going to take sort of way. “Ok, so how do you account for the discrepancy then?”

“Well, it could only be a massive object between us and the star, bending the light so it appears in different places from different vantage points. The thing is, it would have been undetectable if we didn’t have data from three different systems.”

“A black hole?”

“That’s what I thought at first. But then I ran the numbers. I worked out the most likely position. I worked out the mass and even the density of the object. Not enough for a black hole. It took me years to accept what this was. It was too crazy, too impossible. But it was the only thing I could come up with that fit the data.” Harvey’s hands were waving wildly about at this point. It would not be inappropriate for a thunderstorm to break out on the bridge.

“What was it?”

Harvey leaned in toward Paps, as if he were revealing the darkest secrets of the universe. His whispers were barely audible on Polk’s display. “Somebody has hidden an entire solar system.”

The bridge suddenly burst into a whirlwind of activity. Lights blinking, alarms ringing and buzzing, screens flashing red warning signs. Paps spun around in his chair and started shouting, “oh, no you don’t! You’re not taking me to another hell-hole where I can taken hostage all over again!” He ran toward the nearest console and started frantically pressing buttons, cursing the ship the entire time.

The engines started to ramp up. Polk and The Worm looked at each other incredulously, completely unsure of what to do. “We should probably get up there,” they both said, and bolted out of Polk’s quarters, papers covered in calculations and other doodles flying around in their wake.

Harvey sat at his station and stared wide eyed at the course setting. “We’re going there? We’re going there!”

Orion and its lobby started receding on the main viewscreen. Chatter exploded over every channel on the comm. Paps slammed his fist on the console and a voice came over the sound system. “Where the hell do you think you’re going, Pappas?” It was General Salazar. “You haven’t been cleared to launch! Get your ass back here!”

Paps continued running around and pressing buttons. “Believe me, I’m trying, General. This ship has a mind of its own, though, and has a nasty habit of taking me places I don’t like.”

The General screamed incoherently over the speakers, generating a painful screech of feedback. Paps flipped the channel off and shot an angry look at an empty chair by the weapons station.

Polk and The Worm ran onto the bridge, both breathing heavily. “What’s going on? Where are we going?”

Paps stopped what he was doing and looked at his new crew, tears streaming down his face. He started laughing in a way that made everyone’s skin crawl. “We’re going to Harvey’s invisible star system, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” He fell to the ground and buried his face in his hands.

Polk and Worm ran to their respective stations. The systems were locked. The Worm got the distinct feeling that her terminal was mocking her.

Everyone on the bridge settled into a state of resigned terror. The room stank of the sweat of panic and fear. The ship was making its way out of the Orion System, dragging it’s new crew kicking and screaming.

Dr. Capitate strolled onto the bridge, confidently carrying her clipboard and completely unaware of the events of the last few minutes.

“Is everyone ready for their psych evals?”

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2 Responses to “Space Madness: Episode XV”

  1. Great stuff, as usual. I think you need to make a clearer boundary between what’s happening on the bridge and the two characters who are watching/listening from the science room.

  2. Also, I’m used to seeing “pooh-pooh” not “poo-poo” to indicate dismissal of an idea. Perhaps you wanted a fecal dismissal…?

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