Space Madness: Episode XVI
THE WAITING IS THE HARDEST PART
“Tell me, Richard. How have you been coping with life on the ship?”
Richard looked at the ceiling and sighed. Another useless psych evaluation with Dr. Capitate was the last thing he needed. He wanted to work. He wanted to tear apart the floor of his quarters to find out what alien technology was hiding just under the surface. He wanted to not think about his feelings.
“How am I coping? Let’s see, our ship has a mind of its own and is taking us to an invisible star that may or may not actually be there. Nobody can figure out how even the most basic mechanisms work here. Our captain has mood swings like I’ve never seen before. Oh, and if we ever make it back to Orion, hundreds of years will have passed and everybody we know will all be long dead. All things considered, I could use a drink.”
Richard was always one of Dr. Capitate’s most difficult patients. He was clearly very smart, and just as clearly didn’t want anyone to know what he was thinking. He walled off any sadness or depression he may have felt with humor. Dr. Capitate never liked humor. “What do you think about the captain?”
Polk lowered his head and grinned at Dr. Capitate. “Oh, I see. You’ve got a new crazy fish on the line. Captain Paps. You know, way back when, I used to be your pet project. But the captain, he’s something else isn’t he. A man who lost his first crew on some uncharted alien planet, and fears the same grisly ending may come to us. A man who’s brain may have been altered by alien hands. A man who has lost all control of his surroundings and desperately wants to get it back. I can see why you’re so interested in him. I have to admit, I’m a little jealous.”
Dr. Capitate scribbled in her notebook. “He is our commanding officer. It’s troubling to see the crew talk about him like he’s some sort of mad man.”
Polk stopped smiling. “In a few weeks, I think every single one of us will be as crazy as him.”
A chill ran down Dr. Capitate’s spine. In all of the sessions she’d had with Polk back on Orion, he had never been so serious.
The Worm had found something interesting in the engine room. She hadn’t made progress accessing the computer’s subsystems from any of the access terminals on the bridge, so she decided to take a more direct approach. For two weeks she mapped out the data connections on the ship, looking for hubs of electrical or optical or neural activity. Her data revealed a few places where activity was a tick higher than normal. The first place she found was buried inside a wall in the engine room. She managed to pry open the paneling on the wall, revealing another panel. She pried open this panel and found a metal sphere inside connected to tube shaped conduits that presumably led all over the ship.
She needed access to that sphere. She used her hand device to scan for any ports or cracks or loose wires that could be used as an interface with her computer. As if anticipating her request, the sphere rotated and revealed two spikes that could be clipped onto.
The Worm leaped backward in surprise. For all she knew, those spikes could fire lasers at her and incinerate her. “Get a grip,” she whispered to herself.
In an impressive bit of post-hoc reasoning, she convinced herself that any automated defenses would have got to her when she opened the first panel. This ship was far too smart to allow physical access to anything it didn’t want her to see.
She scanned the metal spikes. Low voltage electrical output. “It’s inviting me in.”
The Worm grabbed a couple of cables with self soldering tips on the end from her tool kit. She plugged the other end of the cables into her hand scanner.
She wiped the sweat from her brow. The computer system had seemed to be toying with her for the last two weeks. She got the impression that it was sizing her up, testing her, that she needed to earn its trust. She was long past wondering whether it was intelligent, she knew that for a fact. Now she was intensely curious about what it wanted with her. Curious and ridiculously scared.
The download onto her scanner was a bit slow. This was to be expected, as the ship’s computer, designed by aliens, wasn’t exactly compatible with her portable device. A progress bar appeared on her little screen. One per cent.
The Worm sighed and sat down, resting her head against the wall opposite the mess of her pried open panel. She could feel the faint hum of the engines reverberating in her skull. “This is going to take a while.”
She looked back down at the progress bar. One per cent. When she raised her head back up the figure of Captain Paps loomed over her. “How’s your work progressing, The?”
There was a tinge of hesitation in his voice, as if he was fighting with himself just to remain calm. “So we’re on a first name basis now, huh, Paps?”
Paps laughed nervously. “I guess so.” His eyes darted away from her and settled on the sphere embedded in the wall. “What have you found here?”
There was no point in lying to the captain. There was also no point in telling him everything. “Some kind of data node. I’m hoping to access some of the subsystems from here.” If it will let me, she didn’t say. “It’s pretty slow going. I’ve got a bit of a dodgy connection here, so I might be a while.”
Paps nodded and looked around some more. “Good… good. Carry on.”
Before Paps could turn around and leave for somewhere private to go scream at Hal, The Worm stopped him. “So who’s your imaginary friend, Paps?”
For a moment Paps looked like he was about to start breaking things. He quickly resumed his stoic demeanor. “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t get me wrong, you’re quite good at pretending he’s not there when others are in the room. I don’t think our head doctor has figured it out. But I’ve seen you looking at empty chairs like there’s someone sitting there mocking you. I’ve heard you having animated conversations with thin air. You see someone. And what’s more, you’re scared of him.”
Paps crouched down to The Worm’s eye level and started breathing heavily through his nose. She couldn’t be sure if he was going to tear her limb from limb or start weeping. “Are you calling your captain crazy?”
The Worm considered just how far to push this. “No. I think what you are seeing is this ship communicating to you through that device in your skull.”
Paps grabbed her by the shoulders and shook. “How do you know about that?!”
The Worm continued, not showing a hint of fear. “Paps, you hired the best hacker in the galaxy. I perused your medical records. Besides, I’m just following orders. You wanted me to crack the ship’s computer, and I think that your friend is the key.”
Paps let go and slumped against the wall next to her. “He wants me to kill you, you know.”
The Worm did not wet herself after that statement. She continued to project confidence. “Well, since you haven’t killed me, and the ship hasn’t killed me, I’d say you have control over the situation.” She was speculating wildly at this point. “I’d say that you are starting to take command, real command of this ship with your mind.”
Paps stood up and straightened his shirt. “I hope you’re right.” He then walked confidently out of the engine room, confidently bumping his shoulder against the edge of the doorway on the way.
The Worm exhaled for a good three count. She looked back down at the progress bar on her hand scanner. One per cent.
“Richard, we’re talking about you right now, not the captain. I am asking you not to do anything… foolish.”
Polk laughed. “Trust me, I’m not the one you have to worry about. The way I see it, there are only two ways this little adventure can end. Either we get to Harvey’s invisible star and there’s nothing there, or there is something there and it will kill us all. Either way, none of my actions here will make the slightest bit of difference.”