Space Madness: Episode XX
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.”