Space Madness: Episode XVIII
Dr. Capitate didn’t know what to do with The Worm. Every time she came down for a chat the progress bar was further along and The Worm was further removed from reality. During their last chat, The Worm rambled incoherently about the union of humans and computers, the birth of a new species, and the beauty of a perfectly executed self diagnostic program. Dr. Capitate had to act soon, or The Worm would be lost forever.
The Worm rocked back and forth, never taking her eyes off the metal sphere in the hole in the wall of the engine room.
Dr. Capitate revised her estimate of when she needed to act. It was yesterday, perhaps even a week ago. She looked down at the hand scanner which now seemed fused to The Worm’s hand. 87 per cent.
Richard Polk was getting punchy. No amount of reading, meditation, or motivational therapy could have adequately prepared him for the sheer boredom of deep space travel. Every little thing annoyed him a little more every day. The way Harvey breathed irregularly through his nose while scanning and finding nothing. The way Captain Paps couldn’t maintain eye contact when being spoken to. The way the captain would lock himself in his quarters and shout at himself. The way Dr. Capitate would scribble in her notebook, as if those notes would somehow save the psyches of the crew.
Polk clawed at the armrest of the chair at his station.
Polk decided he would mix things up today. He got up from his station on the bridge, swaggered over to the Space Water Dispenser, and poured himself a cup of tea. He took a sip, slurping the tea loud enough for everyone else on the bridge to hear. “This is some mighty fine tea today, Captain Paps. What flavor is this?”
“Boiled water,” Paps muttered without bothering to move a muscle. He was intently focused on the bottom right corner of the main viewer.
“Well, I think someone put a little extra Oh! In the H2O today!” Polk was being intentionally annoying. He wouldn’t be satisfied until everyone was bothered by him as much as he was by them.
Harvey upped the ante by loudly opening a packet of Space Chips. The crinkling sound the bag made while Harvey attempted to open it reverberated inside Polk’s skull. Once open, Harvey grabbed a single chip and bit into it while grunting with satisfaction. He chewed with his mouth open, smacking his lips and sending a cloud of debris around the entire bridge.
Polk countered by clearing his throat and slurping his tea with increased volume. He pulled the cup slowly from his lips and let out an exaggerated sigh. He placed the teacup on the control panel at his station and put a lid on it to keep it safe from the debris of Harvey’s masticated munchies. Polk then started cracking his knuckles, one by one. He considered taking off his boots in order to crack his toes, but decided that should be a last resort.
“Captain!” Something distracted Harvey from his high decibel meal. “There’s a blip on my scanner!”
Paps turned his chair around toward Harvey’s station, though clearly he did not want to. “Are you sure it’s not your food?”
Harvey wiped the scanner off with his sleeve. “No, sir, it’s definitely a blip.”
Paps stood up laboriously. He grimaced and put his hand on his lower back as he slowly made his way over to have a look at Harvey’s screen. “Where is it?”
“It’s just at the edge of scanning range. Keeps popping on and off the screen.”
Paps took a look. Polk leaned back in his chair and started whistling tunelessly. “I don’t see anything.”
Harvey’s eyes darted back and forth across the display. He began chewing on his fingernails. “Keep looking. It should come back into range again.”
Paps rubbed the back of his neck. “You’re sure about this, are you? When we double check the logs, something will actually…”
Harvey bolted to a standing position and pointed at the screen. His chair careened all the way to the entrance of the bridge. “There it is again, Captain!”
Paps was non-plussed. Amongst all the bizarre happenings that his journey had put him through, this appeared to be a minor one. It was just a blip on a scanner, a scanner he had determined only let him see what it wanted him to see. “What do you think it is, Harvey?”
Harvey was shaking with excitement. “It has to be a ship of some sort. It’s matching our speed, and hovering just on the edge of our scanning range. It stands out like a sore thumb when it shows up, since everything else behind us has been red shifted well past our ability to detect it.”
Paps thought about this. It made sense. The Duners could have been shadowing him since the beginning. Or the Remotes could have been following him since he left the red giant. But why show up on the scanners now? “Run a more intensive scan. Full spectrum sweep. I want to know what that thing is.”
Polk turned his head toward the Captain and Harvey and laughed out loud. It was a joyless laugh, the laugh of a man resigned to his fate. “You don’t honestly believe that will make one bit of difference, do you Captain?”
Paps raised his head in order to glare menacingly at his ship’s engineer.
“You, more than anyone else, should know just how little control we have over the events on this ship. It has taken us hostage, and will do whatever it wants with us before it kills us all or leaves us for dead. Stop pretending that you aren’t a pawn in some alien scheme.”
Paps didn’t want to hear this. He didn’t want to give in. He didn’t want to admit that he had lost control. That he never had any control in the first place. “I’m the captain of this ship dammit! I have been fighting every ridiculous action that it has put me through since the moment I woke up without my first crew.”
“And how has that battle of wills worked out for you so far, eh, Paps? Have you been able to get her to do one thing you wanted? To prevent her from doing one thing she wanted?”
Paps flew across the room, ripped Polk out of his chair and threw him to the ground. He slammed his knee onto Polk’s chest and lifted his head up by the collar of his uniform. “If you’re giving up, then I don’t have any use for you. The only reason to keep you around is for fresh meat in the event we run out of food.”
Polk laughed again, this time his chest rattled and he coughed up some blood. “You never had any use for me. Did you think I would find anything out that you didn’t already know? Did you think I would be able to rig up some kind of manual control system for the engines?”
Paps let go of Polk’s collar and let his head slam against the floor. Polk continued to laugh and wheeze and cough. Paps leaned back and softened his tone. “I hoped you would be up to the task. I guess I was wrong.”
Polk wasn’t finished yet. “And what of our poor hacker? Did you think she would be up to the task of getting control of the ship’s computer, rather than the other way around? Is her condition the reason you scream at yourself when you think no one is listening?”
Paps was on the verge of tears. He hadn’t been down to the engine room to see her even once since their initial conversation. His mouth opened, but he couldn’t find any words.
“Whatever that blip is, it doesn’t matter. We won’t be able to do a damn thing about it.”
Paps began to compose himself. He stood up so he could once again project an air of authority. “Are you finished, Engineer Polk.”
“Just one more thing, Captain. I want to thank you. Thank you for dragging us all into your own personal hell. At least Harvey’s enjoying himself.”
This was the moment of truth. Time to break the cables that were draining the humanity from The Worm.
Dr. Capitate pulled a laser scalpel from her bag. The metal sphere in the wall rotated slightly, jostling the wires joining itself to The Worm’s hand scanner.
“Air filter on line…optimize…reset…”
She lightly grabbed The Worm’s arm and carefully positioned the scalpel. The wall panels began to rattle. For the first time in weeks, The Worm stopped staring at the sphere. Her gaze shifted to her arm.
“Defense mode 217…engage…”
In a single, fluid motion, The Worm grabbed the scalpel with her free hand, dialed its power level to maximum, and sliced off Dr. Capitate’s head. Her torso fell forward into The Worm’s lap, while her head bounced and rolled at her feet.
“Threat neutralized…oxygen levels nominal…conversion complete.”