Archive for May, 2013

Space Madness: Episode XXI

Posted in science fiction on May 19, 2013 by Alex

WHILE YOU WERE OUT

Harvey and Polk stood over the Captain’s unconscious body, still curled up in a fetal position on the floor of the bridge.

“Should we wake him up?” Harvey asked, not knowing how to accomplish such a task.

“Nah, he’ll wake up eventually.”

“Shouldn’t we at least take him down to the Med Bay? You know, put him on one of those tables that monitors his vital signs?”

Polk thought about this. The Med Bay was a tiny room with a chair and a computer console for the doctor and a coffin sized tube for the patient to lie in. Polk shuddered at the thought of waking up in there. “I don’t think either of us have the requisite medical training.”

Harvey poked the Captain’s body. No response.

Polk began to pace back and forth. “If we’re going to make it back home, it’s not going to be Captain Paps that gets us there.”

Harvey gave Polk a confused look. “Why not?”

Polk shot an even more confused look back at Harvey. “You’re joking, right?” The earnest, naive face of the navigator suggested he wasn’t. “Captain Paps has never had control of this ship. Quite the opposite I think. Do you want to know why he’s out cold on the floor right now?”

Harvey poked Paps’ body again.

“That fleet out there was sending signals to his brain. The signs were all there, plain as day. The way he was always talking to himself, how he seemed to be looking at someone else whenever he was talking to you…”

“I thought that was just me. I’ve never been much of a conversationalist, you know. I find myself talking and then people either wander off or start talking about something else before I can…”

Polk pressed on, determined not to get sidetracked by Harvey’s lack of conversational skill. “That fleet has been in constant contact with Captain Paps. Ever since we left Orion. He probably didn’t even know it was them. But they show up here, get completely wiped out while they were still connected, and it fried his brain.”

Harvey opened his mouth to speak.

Polk continued. “The ship was on some mission of its own. None of use had any control over any of the systems. Every once in a while it decided to actually let us know what it was up to.”

Harvey raised his finger to indicate that he had an idea.

Polk continued. “No, our best shot is The Worm. She has the access to the computer, she can even give some commands. Paps isn’t the captain now, and he won’t be going forward. How can he be the captain when his own ship won’t follow his orders?”

Harvey was about to voice his disapproval of what Polk was suggesting. He inhaled loudly and prepared to say something forceful.

Polk continued. “Leave him here, or take him to the Med Bay, I don’t care. I’m going down to the engine room. Let me know if anything happens up here.”

Polk walked off the bridge in a hurry. Just after the door shut behind him, Harvey muttered nervously to himself. “But I don’t want to mutiny.”

————————————-

Down in the engine room, The Worm had regained consciousness. She checked to see that all her appendages were still intact. They were. She was lying back in a reclining chair that Polk had slapped together some months before. She felt more comfortable than she ought to, considering the circumstances. Though something felt missing. She was still hooked up to the ship’s computer, tethered to the sphere in the wall. The sphere was somehow less active than it had been in the past.

That was it.

The chatter was gone. The voices, the codes, the instructions, all gone. She tried to contact someone, to tell her what to do. Part of her knew what to do: fire up the engines and get the hell out of here. She could do it. She could take control.

A message came in. She didn’t recognize it. It would take some time to decode. “Uh-oh, that’s not one of ours.”

Polk had just walked in, carrying a cup of water and a tray of food that probably still tasted like Dr. Capitate. It was better than starving, but not much better. “What’s not one of ours?”

“I think… I think we’ve just been contacted by the Remotes. I’m working out what the message says right now.”

Polk placed the tray on a small table beside the reclining chair. He had built that table from the floor panels in his quarters. “There aren’t too many things they would want to tell us. Can you find a way to get the engines under control before you find out?”

The Worm went stiff and stared at the wall. “Processing…”

She relaxed her body and turned her head toward Polk. He could never get used to the way she transitioned from robot to human with such frequency. “Richard, I have control of the engines. The others, they stopped giving me instructions and now the system recognizes me as the ranking officer.”

Polk excitedly leaped into the air. “Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s get moving!”

The engines began to hum. The ship veered starboard as sharp as it could. The internal gravity couldn’t keep up with the acceleration and The Worm’s chair started sliding across the engine room floor, knocking her food tray off the table.

The Worm was reveling in her newfound power over the ship. She smiled for the first time in eons. “We’re off. By my calculations we should be back at Orion in sixteen months.”

Polk raced over to the intercom and mashed his fingers over all the buttons. “Are you reading this, Harvey? We are going home! YEEEEEEEEEE-HAAAAAAAAAH!!”

Harvey’s voice crackled over the channel. “Great news, sir. I felt the turn up here. The Captain’s body rolled all the way over to my station.”

In an instant, The Worm shifted moods. “Um, Richard? I think we’ve got a problem.”

Polk’s eyes bulged out of his sockets in disbelief. He should have known the other shoe would drop at some point. “Oh, no. Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare say it. We are THIS close to making it home…”

“We’re being followed.”

———————————–

Paps awoke on the floor of the bridge, underneath Harvey’s console. His head was still throbbing from whatever it was that happened. It felt like a bomb went off inside his skull. At least Hal was nowhere to be seen, which was a plus. He looked around and found Harvey staring at the main viewer. It appeared to be the image of a grey wall, though it might have been simply turned off.

“Harvey, what’s our situation?”

Harvey turned around nervously and scratched the back of his neck. “Well.. the good news is we regained full control of the ship.”

This good news felt like a pair of sledgehammers pounding against his temples. He hated to think what the bad news was going to feel like. “What’s the bad news?”

“Um…well…err…”

“Spit it out, Harvey.”

“It’s not going to do us any good to have control since we’ve been… captured.”

“Captured?”

“Captured, this ship caught us from behind and sort of… swallowed us. You’re looking at the inside of it right now.”

Paps attempted to stand up straight. He failed, and had to lean on Harvey’s console. The console beeped when his hand fell against it, causing sharp pains to shoot down the back of his neck. Paps had never been in so much pain.

“Good, wake me when something terrible happens.” Paps collapsed into Harvey’s chair in order to let his consciousness focus on more important things.

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Space Madness: Episode XX

Posted in science fiction on May 12, 2013 by Alex

PUNCTUATED EQUILIBRIUM

The ship scanned the huge dark mass in front of it. This was taking much longer than usual because Captain Paps decided to use a passive scan. Normally, to scan an object one must bounce photons of various wavelengths off it. By doing this, one can quickly determine the distance to the object, its velocity, size, shape, temperature distribution, and material properties. Of course, any intelligent being on this object would notice all the extra photons hitting it, and could deduce all of the same information about the ship doing the scanning. If one wants to approach undetected, one must therefore use a passive scan.

The problem with a passive scan is that it takes an extremely long time to collect enough data to be useful, and there is no guarantee that whoever it is that is not supposed to detect you will not, in fact, detect you anyway.

On the bridge of the ship, nothing was happening. Captain Paps sat in his Space Captain’s Chair, doing nothing. Engineer Richard Polk sat at his station, doing nothing. Paps’ imaginary friend Hal, who originally claimed to be an all powerful being who exists in all of time and space but was now revealed to be a by-product of an alien piece of technology implanted at the base of his skull in order to communicate more efficiently with the ship’s computers, was doing nothing. Even if he was doing something, no one but Paps would notice.

Down in engineering, the ship’s computer specialist The Worm, who had successfully forged a link between her mind and the ship’s computer, but was rarely in control of this link, was doing nothing.

The mental toll that interstellar travel takes isn’t due simply to the fact that nothing ever happens. That would be bearable. It’s the fact that, at any moment, something could happen that requires the crew’s full attention. Everyone on the ship must be constantly alert, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. To be in a constant state of emergency readiness when nothing happens for months, sometimes years at a time is mentally taxing at best, and can potentially drive a person insane.

The ship’s navigator, Harvey, was doing something. He was combing through the data that the scanners were collecting. He had been doing this for weeks now, and had worked out the distance to the mystery object with error bars of less than 10%. He had also determined that the object was hot enough for a star to be inside it. Someone had constructed a shell around a star and was living on the inside surface. No, not a shell, the angular momentum was distributed far too erratically for that. It was a dense cloud of orbiting bodies, possibly with multiple layers, dense enough to completely absorb the light from the star, yet aligned perfectly so that none of the orbiting bodies ever collided with one another.

Preliminary calculations also determined that the mass of material in orbit was far greater than what was contained in an ordinary solar system. Harvey conjectured that these creatures must have brought in multiple systems worth of rock, carbon, water, methane, and whatever else they needed during its construction. This was surely the largest object ever built.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Harvey said this to no one in particular. Paps and Polk both turned toward him.

Polk responded. “It is amazing, and it scares the hell out of me. We won’t stand a chance if they decide to attack.”

Paps interrupted. “Hopefully, it won’t come to that. If we’re no threat to them, they might let us be on our merry way. Who knows? They might even want to talk, exchange ideas, or help us poor humans out with some fancy tech.”

Polk guffawed. “How’d that work out the last time you encountered these guys? They took your ship before you even knew they were there. It was only through some freaky bit of luck that you escaped. I’m still not sure I believe that actually happened.”

Paps leaned back in his chair and thought about this. “Yeah, it happened. They weren’t too friendly. I’m pretty sure they wanted to put me in a zoo.”

“How long are we planning to stick around here for, anyway?” This was not the first time Polk had asked this, nor would it be the last. He knew that the ship would decide they could leave when it was good and ready.

“If you want to take the helm and get us out of here, be my guest.”

———————————-

The passing weeks turned into months. Every day the crew sat on the bridge, staring at that unmoving black blur in the center of the view screen, and every day nothing continued to happen. A little more data would trickle in, Harvey would get excited and analyze it, refine his estimates of the mystery object’s mass and material makeup, and announce the results to his utterly dejected crewmates. Every day Polk would go down to the engine room to keep The Worm company, and help her find a way to take control of the ship. Every day they failed to find one.

Paps figured that today would be no different. Today would be another day when nothing happened. He tried hard to keep his focus, to maintain the image a commanding officer is supposed to. This was becoming a little harder everyday, however. At some point, he would crack.

There was something different about today, though. For one, Hal was a bit more talkative than usual. Well, more talkative than he had been since they arrived in this system. “You know, Captain? I’m glad you were able to witness the greatest engineering marvel in the universe before it got destroyed.”

Paps looked up at Hal, who was wearing an army uniform from ancient France and pointing at the viewer with a stick.

Hal continued. “Soon, this place, which was constructed from the ashes of dozens of star systems, from the slave labor of the peoples of those same star systems, will be destroyed.”

Paps didn’t care that Harvey was on the bridge. “Destroyed by who? Us? Yeah, right.”

Hal began to march confidently around the room. “Oh, not us. It was our job to find this place. Admittedly, we weren’t expected to succeed. I mean, this was supposed to be a trial run. Most of our Duner friends were skeptical that it was even possible.”

This was a new wrinkle that Paps hadn’t heard before. He wanted to fly out of his chair and start screaming at Hal for not telling him this in the first place, but Harvey was sitting behind him looking nervous. The look of rage on Paps’ face said everything he needed to say.

“Oh, don’t go flying off the handle again. You’ve got a witness on the bridge. Besides, in the state you were in when we first left the planet, I doubt you would have been receptive to the idea.”

Hal marched back to the viewer and slapped the dark blob with his stick. It didn’t make a sound. “I’ve got some good news for you. News that will this long journey of yours seem worth while. You know that blip Harvey kept seeing behind him? Well, it was more than a blip. It was our fleet catching up to you. Your computer genius down in the engine room somehow contacted them and they are ready to strike. They are receiving tactical data and forming battle plans and soon you will see them descending on this system from all angles.”

Paps cocked his eyebrow. Hal continued. “And what to you get out of this, my dear Captain? You get to be free, you get to keep your ship, to go home, retire. You will also be the greatest hero the Duners have ever known. The man who led them to the den of evil, and helped them to destroy it.”

Paps mulled this over. He scratched himself thoughtfully. “What if the Duners lose?”

“Impossible. They have been building this fleet for generations. They have weapons that could wipe out a planet with a single shot. Every angle will be covered. You are about to witness complete destruction.”

“Captain, the shell is shifting!” Harvey was pointing at the screen. It was difficult for Paps to tell if the look on his face was excitement or terror.

“What do you got, Harvey?”

“Some objects appear to be moving away from it. A lot of objects.”

The black sphere in the center of the main viewer appeared to be growing. On closer inspection, it was simply shedding an outer layer. Shafts of starlight intermittently broke through the structure. As the shed layer moved closer, it began to resolve itself into millions of individual dots. This was presumably the defense perimeter of the Remotes.

Hal was still marching back and forth in front of Paps. “Oh, it looks like they’re gonna put up a fight.”

The comm system started crackling. “Paps!” It was Polk. “The Worm is starting to go crazy down here. It looked like some kind of seizure. She kept screaming ‘they’re here’ and now she’s yelling out a bunch of numbers at random. What the hell is going on up there?”

Paps slammed his fist on the comm button. “I think we’re about to find out if our mission is a success.”

Harvey began flailing at his station. “We’ve got multiple ships behind us!”

Several large craft whizzed onto the screen, racing toward the giant black sphere. The sphere was also expanding toward them.

Paps didn’t know what to do. He punched the comm button again. “Polk, can you get us out of here?”

“No can do, Captain. The Worm is in full computer-talk mode right now. You can turn the scanners back on, though.”

Paps motioned to Harvey to do so. A tactical display appeared on the main viewer. It was a bunch of dots moving toward each other. “Come on! That’s all we can see?”

Hal was triumphantly pointing at the screen. “I can taste victory! It’s so sweet!”

Explosions started going off in front of them. Bright white flashes dotted the screen. The intensity and frequency of the explosions increased rapidly until the Paps and Harvey had to shield their eyes.

Hal’s started to look uneasy. The back of Paps’ head started to throb. Harvey started to get sick.

Hal fell to the floor, screaming. “No! They can’t win! It’s impossible!”

The pain in Paps’ skull became too much to bear. He fell to the floor screaming. Polk’s voice crackled over the comm again. “The Worm is freaking out down here! What’s going on?!” Harvey was curled up in a ball on the floor.

Suddenly, the flashes stopped. The viewer faded to black. The dots on the screen receded, once again sealing the shafts of sunlight from view.

Paps lay unconscious on the floor. Harvey worked up the courage to walk over and see if he was still alive. He checked his pulse with his least shaky hand. Polk punched the comm button on the captain’s chair. “Richard, are you down there?”

A few seconds passed. “Yeah, The Worm’s out cold. I don’t know what happened to her.”

Harvey looked at the pattern of debris on the viewer’s tactical display. All of it was moving away from the star system. “I think our guys lost.”

Space Madness: Episode XIX

Posted in science fiction on May 5, 2013 by Alex

RECYCLING

It is difficult to overstate the importance of recycling while traveling in deep space. Resources are extremely limited, so any organic material that can be re-used, is re-used. This includes the water, the food, the packaging the food comes in, the garbage, the waste products of all the inhabitants of the ship (including hair and sloughed off skin), and most grimly of all: the dead.

All organic material is pulped and processed in order to be used as raw materials to feed the specially bred algae in the ship’s hydroponic bay. Some of the algae produces oxygen, and some is harvested to provide food for the crew. An unpleasant side effect of this process is that each bit of organic material gives the food a unique characteristic taste, and the crew eating this food are all painfully aware when they are ingesting the remains of a fallen comrade.

The same process happens planet side as well, but few people ever notice because it happens on a much larger time scale.

“Don’t give up now, Captain. Your mission is almost complete.”

Paps sat alone in his quarters, away from the prying eyes of his crew. Only he was never alone. There was always Hal. Paps had come to the conclusion that Hal’s purpose was to force him to finish this mission, whatever this mission was. He provided motivation when it was required, misdirection and outright lies when that suited his purpose, and never enough information to figure out what was really going on. “My mission, huh? I don’t suppose you’re going to finally tell me what that is? Why the Duners wired you into my brain? Why they couldn’t have done all this themselves?”

Hal placed his hand on Paps’ shoulder in an attempt to reassure him. Once again, it had the opposite effect, as nothing was actually resting on Paps’ shoulder. “You’ll find out soon enough. Though I must say, you have far exceeded your expectations.”

Paps no longer had the energy to argue with Hal. He was a broken man. A puppet controlled by aliens with their own agenda. Nothing he ever did or said ever changed that. Why did it only take his engineer a few days to see this, when Paps couldn’t in the eternity he had spent here? Hal. It was always Hal making sure that he didn’t look in that particular blind spot.

“Your computer specialist is working out, as well. She took to the merging process like she was destined for it.”

“Yeah, only took one of the crew out during that process. You calling that a win, too?”

Hal smirked. “Well, it’s not like she killed a useful member of your crew. You have no need for someone asking how you are feeling all the time.”

Paps hated himself for agreeing with Hal here. It’s never a good thing to lose a crew member, but if one has to go, always go with the one whose skills will be missed the least.

The intercom beeped, followed by the sound of Harvey’s unnervingly excited voice. “Captain, we’re slowing down! I think we’re almost to our destination! The invisible star system!”

Paps slowly rose from his chair and made his way to the bridge.

——————————-

Polk sat on the floor of the engine room, trying to keep The Worm company. Her personality had partially returned since the download on her scanner had completed, but she was still physically attached to the sphere in the wall. Every once in a while she would lapse into computer-speak and start uttering monotone lines of instructions, but it was good to see her able to converse as a human being once again.

“Richard, we’re almost there. I have to notify the others.”

“I’m sure they’ll figure it out. I can tell just sitting here that the braking thrusters have switched on and we’re beginning to slow.”

“Not them… never mind.”

Polk was also convinced that The Worm was their only hope of getting back to civilization. She didn’t exactly have control over the computer, but she did have access. She could, if she chose to, initiate a change in course. She had to want that, however, and it wasn’t clear at the moment where her wants ended and the ship’s began.

“Worm, what are we going to do when we arrive? If this is the home system of the Remotes, are we going to contact them? Are we going to attack them? I can’t imagine we’ll have much of a chance if that’s the case.”

“Don’t worry, Richard. We’re just reconaissance. We get to watch.”

Polk didn’t like the sound of that. “Watch what?”

“The clash of two ancient civilizations. Enemies for millions of years, fighting a war that may never be won.”

“You make it sound like millions of years of warfare is somehow noble.”

The Worm sighed. “Not noble. Tragic. Those that rebuilt this ship feel they have been wronged by the Remotes, but the passage of time has distorted those wrongs into great evils. I don’t think they remember what they are so mad about.”

Each word from The Worm’s mouth depressed Polk more and more. “I’m not a fan of tragedies. Can you maybe, I don’t know, coax the ship into heading back home before the fighting breaks out?”

“I don’t have that kind of access. Besides, it’s obvious that our new masters hold grudges for a very long time. Zeno has given me the distinct impression that if we sabotage the mission we’ve been tasked with, they’ll declare war on humanity.”

Polk’s heart rate was beginning to speed up. “Well, then. After the battle, promise me you’ll help us get back home.”

“Assuming we survive, I promise.”

—————————–

Paps dragged himself onto the bridge. “What have you got, Harvey?”

“We’re slowing down. In a few minutes the stars will be within our visible range and we can get a good look at our mystery system.”

Hal whispered into Paps’ ear. “Let’s not draw undue attention to ourselves, eh Captain?”

Paps took a moment to contemplate Hal’s advice. Based on his first encounter with the Remotes, the ship would probably be detected regardless of the precautions he took. On the other hand, it would definitely be detected if he bounced a bunch of signals off them. “Passive scan only, Harvey. I don’t want to annoy them.”

Paps was also worried that radiation from the engines and other systems could be seen, as well. “Also, if the ship will let you, reduce power levels to minimum. We’ll coast in. Hopefully we’ll be indistinguishable from an asteroid.”

“Yes, sir.”

The lights on the bridge dimmed. The shutters on the main viewer opened to reveal a bright star field. The center of the star field was missing. It appeared to be covered by a black disk, the edges of which could only be seen where it partially blocked a star.

At one time Paps was good at making inspirational speeches. That was one quality that made him an effective commander. He had the ability to rally his troops, to make minor causes seem righteous, to turn certain death into a fighting chance.

His experience had slowly taken this quality from him. Speech by speech, his once powerful words degenerated intostatements brief statements of inevitable defeat, culminating in his shortest, most depressing speech yet: “I wish I could say it’s been nice knowing you all.”