Space Madness: Episode XVII
THE PROGRESS BAR
“Tell me, Harvey. How are you holding up on this journey?”
Harvey’s eyes moved around the room, as if it burned them to look at any one thing for too long. “I’m great, Doctor. I never dreamed I would actually get to see my hiding star. When Zeno just took off after seeing my evidence, I … I’ve never felt more alive. I thought at first that we would arrive in a matter of minutes, but reason prevailed and I realized we have quite some time before we arrive. Time is flying, though. I can barely sleep I’m so excited. How long have we been out here?”
“About three months.”
“Yes, three months. And already several years have passed for those back home. I really should compute how long it’s been for them. It would be a simple matter. We can gauge our speed from the blue shift of the starlight in front of us. I’ve never done that before, it should be fascinating.”
“You don’t miss anyone back home? Your wife? Your friends?”
“Oh, I abandoned them long before we left Orion. My wife was pretty angry with me for spending so much time at that observatory. I’m glad she can move on and not worry about me.”
“I see.” Dr. Capitate scribbled something in her notebook. A classic case of obsession. At least he won’t be distracted while at his post. This trip will have his full attention.
Polk walked on to the bridge and found the captain napping in his chair. “Sir. Captain. Hello?”
Paps shot up to a standing position, facing away from Polk. “No! You can’t control me!” He was dripping sweat. He shook the cobwebs loose from his head and slowly turned around. “Polk?” He asked, slightly embarrassed.
“Something like that. What do you want?”
Polk handed a tablet to Paps. “The latest report on the engines, sir. I still don’t know how they work, but I can make them work for you if Zeno here decides to release the controls.”
Paps took the tablet and tossed it lightly on his chair. “Good. I’m sure we’ll get at least limited control back when we arrive at our destination. How’s The Worm doing?”
Polk sat down at his station. Not to do any work, but just to sit down. “She’s still staring at that thing in the wall. Still staring at that progress bar, waiting to finish downloading whatever it is she’s downloading. You know it’s up to 23 per cent now?”
Paps started pacing around the bridge. “She have any theories?”
“Oh, she’s got tons of them. But she’s going crazy down there. She won’t leave. She won’t take her eyes of that sphere. I have to bring food down to her every day because she can’t bear to step away long enough to feed herself. The Doc brought a bedpan down there, for crying out loud. We have to get her out of that room.”
Paps stopped pacing in front of Polk’s chair. “She’s not going anywhere until that download is complete. You hear me, Mr. Polk?”
Over the last few months, Polk had come to the realization that he was the sanest person on this ship. This was deeply unsettling, as he was accustomed to being the crazy one. But here was the captain, insisting that his hand picked hacker stare at a progress bar that won’t be complete for months. “What if… what if I take some shifts monitoring the download? She could get out of there for a while. She could clean herself up, get some sleep, it would be good for her.”
Paps had a look in his eyes that scared the hell out of Polk. “She’s not going anywhere.”
“Because she’s not safe anywhere else.”
Polk opened his mouth but couldn’t speak. He suddenly longed for the days when he cleaned up Orion’s sewage. That, at least, was a job that made sense.
Paps went back to his chair in the center of the bridge. “I can’t explain how, or why, but this ship will kill her if she leaves that engine room. She needs to convince the computer that she can be trusted on this mission.”
“And what is this mission, exactly?”
“I thought that was obvious. We’re going to the homeworld of the Remotes. I can’t say what we’ll do once we get there, but presumably it involves all of us.”
Polk hoped this wasn’t true. He had heard Paps’ stories about his voyage back. He had heard how the aliens that fixed up this ship hated the Remotes. How the ship somehow hated them as well.
“Oh, goody. I don’t suppose all of us are going to live through this mission, are we?”
“I don’t know.”
It was Polk’s turn to get up and start pacing. “When I was a kid, I used to love all those stories about interstellar ships that never made it to their destinations. What might have happened to them. My favorite was the one where aliens would capture the ships, and stick all the passengers into a zoo. That was how they studied us, by observing our behavior in captivity. Alien families would walk by the cages and feed the passengers crumbs left over from the ship’s food stores, remarking at how primitive these humans are.”
Paps nodded gravely.
“When I got older, of course, I stopped believing such nonsense. But you, Captain, you have managed to bring all those childish fears back. Your cryptic remarks about how this ship wants to kill one of us, but she’s somehow safe in the engine room, those are not helping.”
Paps kept silent.
“I don’t see the point in holding back, sir. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. Tell me what is really going on with this ship.”
Paps leaned forward in his chair and buried his face in his hands. “Be patient, Mr. Polk. You’ll know before we get there.”
“Everyone laughed at me when I said I found an invisible star. But I think I’ll get the last laugh. This has been my life’s work, and my life will finally be worth something.”
Dr. Capitate stopped scribbling in her notebook. She was ready to go back to her quarters to have a good cry.