Space Madness: Episode XIX
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.”
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.”