Making Time Travel Consistent: Part II

Posted in science fiction, Theory of Time Travel on August 30, 2013 by Alex

Item 2: All observations are probabilistic.

This is true whether we invoke quantum mechanics or not. What quantum mechanics brings to the table is the specific sort of probabilities being used. What must be true is that there is a minimum interval of time measurable by any object. What is this interval? In principle, it is the time it takes for light to pass from one end of the object to the other. For time intervals shorter than this, there is no coherent notion of “before” and “after” which could be used to distinguish between events. There is therefore an inherent uncertainty in the measurement of time. This creates uncertainties in the measurements of all the properties of distant objects. For example, if you wanted to know how fast your semi-truck was bearing down on you, you would have to measure the length of the time interval between successive photons hitting the back of your eye. Ultimately, all types of measurements reduce to measuring the time interval between local events. Most of the time, it’s much worse than this, as more detailed observations require more information, which means more photons hit your detector, which means a compounding of the errors in the measurements being done. Steps can be taken to reduce the compounding of the error, but it definitely cannot be reduced to zero. Every honest observation would be a statement like “I am 99.997 percent sure that the truck is between 25.5233357 and 25.5233359 feet away from me, and I am 99.9982 percent sure that its speed is between 45.213 and 45.214 MPH.”

The mathematically inclined would make a graph of “position of the truck” vs. “probability it is currently THIS distance from me.” This graph is called a probability density function (or sometimes simply a distribution.) We would expect it to look like a bell curve (which is called the ‘normal’ distribution) and if we are very sure of the location of the truck, it will be a skinny curve, whereas if we are not terribly sure of the location of the truck it will be a wide curve. The width of the curve (more specifically, the variance) is what is referred to as the “uncertainty” in the measurement.

I should note that this type of uncertainty is completely unrelated to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which gives us another bound on the accuracy of a measurement due to the specific types of probabilities (more accurately: “amplitudes”) used in quantum mechanics.

In the quantum mechanical picture, the amplitudes of different ways an event might be observed to occur can interfere with one another, potentially creating distributions (which are computed from the absolute value of the amplitudes) that are very different from what one sees with just regular old probabilities. For example, it is entirely possible (if exceedingly unlikely) that the semi-truck bearing down on you could have a 50% chance of being 100 feet from you and a 50% chance of being 2 feet from you, based on your observations of the photons hitting your eyes. A situation like this is called a “discrete” distribution, since there are only two discrete options for the location of the truck. This is in stark contrast to a continuous distribution, which is what we see in the normal, “classical,” picture.

I should point out that in this scenario, the quantum mechanical picture can give rise to either discrete distributions or continuous distributions, or sometimes a combination of the two, whereas the classical picture would only give rise to a continuous distribution. Also, these probabilities do not tell us the “true” position of the truck, just the probability that the truck will be in one position or the other (in the discrete case,) or within a certain interval of positions (in the continuous case.) Information from future photons will help us distinguish between the two cases.

I am going to make an attempt in the next section to use discrete probabilities to create a good-enough-for-science-fiction resolution to the famous “Grandfather Paradox.”

Stay tuned.

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Making Time Travel Consistent: part 1

Posted in science fiction, Theory of Time Travel on August 11, 2013 by Alex

In the previous post, I gave you a little teaser about my next writing project: The Causeway. One of the difficult things about writing a story about time travel is the issue of consistency. Time travel is difficult to write about in any way that makes sense. It jumbles up cause and effect into an unintelligible mess, and has a tendency to leave readers passed out in the fetal position, hands fiercely gripping the sides of their head.

What I wish to do in this space is slowly work out my thoughts on the mechanics of time travel in a way that will (hopefully) make sense, or at least be consistent for the purposes of my story. This will be done in a series of posts, tackling one item at a time.

I will not dwell on the specific technology that would be used to implement time travel (more specifically, closed timelike curves that can interact with our normal, causal world,) but on what mechanisms known to science today can be used to explain its possibility.

Item 1: All observations are local.

This is a principle that is easy to ignore when speaking of the so-called paradoxes of quantum mechanics and special relativity. When you see an object (say, a semi-truck bearing down on you), what is it that you really see? You do not see the truck itself, for it is far away and is not directly in contact with you (at least, not yet.) What you see is the image of the truck projected onto your retina. Photons bounce of the surface of the truck, pass through the intervening space, are focused by the lenses in your eyes and strike a screen in the back, slightly altering the nerves there. Electrical signals are then sent to your brain which then interpret what type of object the photons came from, as well as some rough information about how big it is, and what it is made of. Successive bursts of photons hitting the back of your eye can give you more information about your oncoming doom. You can now determine how fast it is moving, whether or not it is slowing down, whether it is coming right at you or is beginning to veer away.

Your eyes (and the part of your brain that processes the incoming information constantly streaming into them) are a fantastically complex and effective bit of measurement and interpretation machinery. They are not, however, perfect. They only have so much resolving power (limited by how many photons can be shoehorned into your eyeball at any given time,) they can only see photons of specific wavelengths, and they require time to process the information input. Much information is thrown out by your brain, leaving you with a highly stylized picture of what is bearing down on you.

In principle, we could make better measuring devices. (And in practice, as well. There are telescopes with much greater resolving power than our eyes, which can see different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and can interpret the data they receive into cool, three dimensional false color graphs. See the images taken by the Hubble Telescope, for example.) But every measuring device works essentially the same way. The object being observed sends out “messenger particles” that travel the distance to the measuring device, and the measuring device then measures some properties of these particles: their wavelengths (or equivalently, their energy), the direction it came from, how that direction and energy relates to the direction and energy of all the other messenger particles hitting it, etc…

All we ever really see are the messengers.

Time Cards in a Time Travel Industry

Posted in science fiction on August 4, 2013 by Alex

The Blog form of Space Madness may be over, but I assure my dedicated fan(s) that I am hard at work editing and revising and adding to the story, preparing it for publication as a novel. I have no idea how long this will take, as I have never written a novel before. It will probably be somewhere between two weeks and a decade before it is ready.

In the meantime, to tide you over, here is an excerpt from another writing project of mine, which I began way back in November as part of National Novel Writing Month. The story itself is titled “The Causeway,” and is mostly about the goings on of a company that uses time travel to generate profit in revolutionary ways.

The company, called “CTC Industries,” is not a perfectly run company by any means, but the use of time travel on a daily basis gives it an overwhelming advantage over all competitors. (CTC stands for “Closed Timelike Curve.”) Here is a sneak peek inside the company with this recently recovered internal memo regarding the reporting of hours worked. Enjoy!

 

To: Accounting Department, CTC Industries.

Subject: Questions about my timecard

 

I have a few concerns regarding the reporting of hours worked through our new online timekeeping system. It seems that the nature of my duties here at CTC Industries does not fit well with an all-purpose time card. Such systems were originally designed for ordinary 9-5 jobs where the employee stays within the office the entire time.

Some of my duties require me to go off site for much of my work day. I would like to know if I should include travel time between sites on my timecard. Also, the policy on overtime is a little unclear, as I am often required to put in a lot of work at home and some extra hours in the office just to get the day’s work done. If you could send me a document laying out these policies in detail, as well as instructions on how to enter them into the automated system; that would be great.

In addition, I often find myself leaving work slightly before I arrived, so as not to cause any embarrassment by having an awkward conversation with my past self. The system seems to have some problems when I enter the “time in” and “time out” fields on days like this. I assure you, that in my own personal timeline, I am careful to keep it to 8 hours a “day” in the office. No more and no less.

There are some days, especially when a deadline is approaching, that I need to interact with my past self in order to get a job done as efficiently as possible. This involves the younger me carefully executing instructions from the older me and retaining as much as possible so that I can properly explain what needs to be done to myself later on. Does this situation count as two days worked, or just one?

Another thing, regarding field work in the past: I received a per diem of $500 for expenditures and meals for a two day excursion in 1987, which will occur next week. Is that $500 in today’s dollars or 1987 dollars? I have been instructed to report my hours to a carpet cleaning company in Sand City and the details will be sorted out by payroll as of last week. Will a pre-paid credit card from today function in 1987, or will I have to bring cash? If I need a rental car, should I get a driver’s license from the appropriate year made up for me? I realize some of these questions may not be in your purview, but I was hoping for some helpful information about these issues from someone. I have asked around, and those who do seem to know something about these things refuse to tell me for fear of creating temporal paradoxes.

I appreciate any time you take in answering these questions. I have heard the new temporal payroll dept. has its hands full at the moment distributing paychecks from future accounts, and I wish you all the best.

Yours,

Leonard Schmidt

Lead Project Engineer, CTC Industries

Department of Causal Loop Construction

Mail Code 6645558

Space Madness: Episode XXIII

Posted in science fiction on July 28, 2013 by Alex

THE LARGEST ZOO IN THE UNIVERSE

A few days had passed. Paps was working on building a cabin by a lake not far from the parked spaceship. His own ship had been disassembled, save for the little metal sphere The Worm now carried around with her. There was a village of humans not far from his cabin, but there was something off about them. Some of their eyes seemed too big, and had strange colors. They had wildly diverging builds, from taller than the tallest person he had ever seen, with arms that seemed to reach to the ground, to short muscular builds. Paps wasn’t sure, but he got the feeling that some of their knees bent in the wrong direction. He was uncomfortable around them, so he decided to build his residence a safe distance from their village.

Polk and The Worm had no such compunctions, however. They tried to fit in the best they could. The Worm still possessed some extra computing power attached to her, and while it was inconvenient to constantly lug around a forty pound piece of metal, it was worth it for the intellectual boost it gave her. She did not want to stay. It was clear to Paps that The Worm and Engineer Polk were planning a revolt of sorts. Good for them, thought Paps. It will give them something to live for, to hope for, to strive for, right up until the moment when their rebellion would be noticed and they would be efficiently disposed of.

From what little Paps had seen of the Remotes, he could tell that they were efficient. It was hard to tell what sort of emotions they had, but they definitely took some pride in their efficiency. It took them mere minutes to neatly disassemble his ship. Each piece was catalogued and sent somewhere for further study. Paps and Harvey watched in awe as team of at most twenty Remotes sliced through the hull, the engines, the life support systems, and all the stuff that was still completely mysterious to the ship’s own crew. It was as if a tornado grabbed hold of it and neatly placed its remains in organized little boxes on a vertical conveyer belt. When they were finished, Polk and The Worm were left sitting on the cold floor of the giant featureless room, looking extremely confused.

Harvey had found himself a hilltop a few kilometers from where Paps was building his cabin. He planned to build an observatory and hole up in it until the day he died. Not that there were any stars to see in the night sky. The sky was filled with planets, asteroids, spaceships, and various unidentified orbs of various size. They were tightly packed together and had crisscrossing orbits. If they weren’t all placed there a long time ago by the most efficient race in the universe, Paps would have thought it a miracle that none of these objects ever collided. The night sky was almost as bright as the daytime sky, with all of the sunlight reflected off of the wall of planets behind the one on which Paps and his crew currently resided. So there were no stars for Harvey to see, but there were plenty of other things. He could spend a lifetime, likely more, calculating the trajectories of the orbits of each object in the sky. It seemed that he would never have to speak to another human being again.

Paps was well aware that he was a prisoner, perhaps a pet or an object of study, but he accepted this more readily than the others. He had been a prisoner on his own ship for some time now, so this was just the same situation in a more comfortable setting. He could pretend he was free, retired to his cabin to live a quiet life by the side of a lake, with specially bred fruits covering all of the nearby trees and bushes, and delicious fish-like creatures practically jumping onto his dinner plate. It was the closest thing to paradise he could imagine himself living in. It made the mental strain of his long journey through space almost worth while.

You are still a prisoner, Captain. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you are safe. That any of these humans are safe. That any of the humans back on Orion, or even Earth, are safe. This is an experiment designed to bend humanity to the will of the Remotes. They will destroy most of your species and engineer the rest of it beyond recognition. They will use you as laborers, or for whatever purpose they can find for you. Your comfort is an illusion.

Paps tried to shake these thoughts from his head, but they kept coming back. It was clear that the village was part of a massive genetic engineering project, designed to test the limits of human evolution. These people had abilities beyond those of ordinary humans. Some could run faster, jump higher, see more colors and shades and contrast, hear better, and even think faster. 

I’m retired. I’m also powerless against these creatures. I see these things, but I can’t change anything. Let the others try. I wish them luck. I hope they succeed. Humanity will be safer in their hands than it ever would have been in mine.

Paps tried to focus intently on the particular log he was sawing. Did trees back on Earth look like this? It was easy to cut, yet completely sturdy and unbreakable once placed in its position on what would soon be his porch. He had never built a cabin before, never had the chance. He was born in space, on the first expedition to the Orion Colony, and had only ever seen pictures of nature. Orion was a barren wasteland, with only microbial life on its surface. Everyone on that planet lived in a sealed dome, and could always see the walls around them.  He finished cutting the log and stood proudly over it, admiring his handy work. A slight gust of wind flitted by as if to say “good job.”

You can’t ignore your duties, Captain. Go speak to that hologram that runs this place. He will tell you. The universe exists to service the Remotes. It didn’t begin that way, but they made it that way. The more they find out about you, the easier it will be for them to wipe the rest of humanity. Your only chance is to end this experiment forever.

Just when Paps was ready to try another round of inner monologue ignoring, a group of military Remotes jumped from behind a… well, there was nothing from behind which they could have jumped. Nevertheless, they came from seemingly nowhere and clubbed him over the head, knocking him out.  They dragged his unconscious body over the horizon of the pristine field. A brightly colored bird-like creature whistled a tune that, had he been awake for it, Paps would have thought was the most beautiful tune he had ever heard.

———————————————————————————————————————————-

The locals were fascinated with the new members of their community. They wanted to hear the stories of what humans in other parts of the galaxy were like. They wanted to know where their ancestors came from. This was a real life peek into their past. Richard was happy to oblige them, hoping it might galvanize his new friends into an attempt to escape this planet. It would be a difficult task, as this planet was the only home they had ever known.

“How long have you been on this planet?”

A young woman with shimmering eyes the size of poker chips sat in the front of the gathering surrounding Polk and The Worm was happy to tell them. “We are the seventh generation here. We have only heard stories of the places you come from. These stories are legends, and we didn’t know if any of them were true until you came.”

“How did your people first come to this place?”

“Our ancestors were on a ship traveling to a new colony. They left from Earth during the Great Exodus. There were too many people on the planet, so some people moved on. They didn’t even have a name for the place they were going to, just a numerical designation. But there was a planet with water and an oxygen atmosphere that they were all ready to tame. Sometime during the journey the ship was taken by our masters, and they were brought here. Each generation received new abilities, though not many survived the first two generations.”

Polk and The Worm both knew that many ships had mysteriously disappeared during deep space travel. A long time ago, a statistical study was performed which concluded that the number of ships that did not make it to their intended destinations was far greater than chance would allow, and speculated that there was some alien force at work destroying or perhaps capturing a significant number of these. Nobody paid much attention to this study except for conspiracy theorists and people looking to find new ghost stories to tell, since there was never any direct evidence for what happened to missing ships. It now appeared that the author of the study was completely correct, and didn’t deserve all the derision he received later in life for being a crackpot.

“Would you like to go back and see some humans someday?”

The young woman’s eyes shined with more colors than Polk was aware existed. “Oh yes! I would love to see the universe, to see where we come from. But our masters would not let us leave, not ever. We can’t even go to the other planets that we see in the night sky. Or the land on the other side of the sea.”

Polk thought this conversation was going swimmingly. He didn’t think it could possibly be this easy to sow the seeds of revolt. “We want to go back. They have taken us from our homes, and we need your help. There is enough material here to build a spaceship. My friend The Worm has enough knowledge to design it, and I’ve got the technical skill to build it. It could take a long time, years possibly, but with your help we can get all of you off of this planet and reunite you with your ancestors.”

A tall, lanky man with no eyes and arms long enough to change the lights on the ceiling of a bio-dome stood up and shook his head. “No.”

The young woman looked extended her hand to Polk. “Sorry, Mister. Our place is here.” The whole group of villagers got up and walked away politely.

“What? I thought you wanted to see humans again. Hello?” They were all unresponsive. They may have looked mostly human, but their reactions and responses were very alien.

The Worm placed a hand on Polk’s shoulder. “What strange little people.”

———————————————————————————————————————–

Paps awoke on a sofa in the seemingly infinite gray room, the figure of Furry Hologram Bill sitting in a leather chair resolved into focus in front of him. The room was brightly lit, though the light didn’t seem to be coming from anywhere in particular. “Hi, Bill. You could have just asked me to come down here.”

“The military folks insist on practicing their stealth maneuvers. How are you feeling?”

Paps rubbed the back of his head and checked for cracks. “I’ve felt worse, but only after raiding the ship’s reserve of Space Moonshine.”

Furry Hologram Bill took a moment to parse the meaning of this statement. He held out a glass filled with a blue liquid. “Take this. It will make you feel better, and possibly add a few years to your life.” Paps took the glass. He did not have the willpower to argue.

“Captain Paps, I would like to ask you some more questions if you don’t mind. In return, I will tell you what I can about my people, and explain your situation more fully.”

“Sure, why not? Do you spend a lot of time clubbing the villagers down there and interviewing them?”

“Not at all. They are free to live their lives, provided they stay on the continent. I am conducting research on genetically modified humans in the wild. It’s not the highest priority item in our research database, currently number 24,546, but I find it satisfying. Admittedly, the environment out there isn’t precisely what you would call ‘wild,’ but it’s the best I can replicate given my limited budget. You, on the other hand, are not genetically modified. But you have been modified in other ways by those you call the Duners. This makes you a perfect candidate for an interview study.”

Paps perked up a little. What was in that blue liquid? “What did they do to me? Other than sticking an implant in my brain and making me a prisoner on my own ship as an unwitting device to attempt to destroy your race, I mean?”

A holographic display appeared next to Furry Hologram Bill. It showed diagrams and figures that Paps could not understand at all, but it probably made what Bill had to say a little more convincing. “I haven’t worked out the details fully, but it seems that they were attempting a complete psychological transformation. They wanted you to become one with the ship. Your computer specialist appears to have been a late addition to the experiment. As trial runs go, it seemed to have gone unexpectedly well.”

Paps laughed “Except for the part where it ended in the destruction of their entire fleet.”

“Well, yes. That was a failure. But the Duners, as you call them, succeeded in interfacing humans and machines in ways that I have not been able to do. What is even more remarkable about this is that I have had quite a head start in altering the genetic structure of humans in order to make this easier.”

“Wait, why does everyone want to merge man and machine so badly? Machines are fine on their own. Humans are fine on their own, and can figure out how to build and use machines as well as anyone. What’s with the need to tinker with us?”

Furry Hologram Bill stood up and began pacing like a lecturer. “My species has fared spectacularly well merging with our machinery. We have direct mental access to the our entire database. Communication is swifter than it ever could have been without it. It has linked the members of my species in a way that has created an organism that is larger than any one of us. We have a group intelligence. The merging of an organic being with a machine is the first step toward creating a group mind. It is the next step in the evolution of intelligence, but it will not happen naturally.  The members of the species must possess the ability to build the group mind from scratch.”

If Paps was still the sort of person who wished to take action, he would have been very angry at this little speech. “You seem to be very keen on doing this to us, not letting us figure it out for ourselves.”

“Rest assured that the group mind of my species has no great interest in yours. You are not a threat to us in any way, and you are not an impediment to any of the higher priority research going on here. We are a very efficient race, Captain. We pursue all avenues of research. The ultimate results of this experiment will not affect humanity one bit. In fact, the ultimate results will probably be to use the humans I have bred here as random number generators or some such nonsense. You seem to have a very high variability of physical and personality traits that can be harnessed for certain modes of computation.”

“So you are indulging in some unimportant research on my species, and have no plans on conquering the ones out there?”

“Of course not, why would we want to do that? It would simply be a waste of resources.”

Paps felt better. He didn’t know if this was because of Furry Hologram Bill’s explanations, or because of the blue liquid he had been handed. It was a mighty tasty blue liquid. So Paps gave in. He would tell this Hologram whatever it wanted to know. His thoughts, dreams, deepest desires, favorite books, anything. He was comforted by the fact that humanity was, if not exactly safe, then at least not annoying enough to be paid any attention at the moment. The others would go about their lives in the giant zoo outside, trying to escape, failing, and trying again. Harvey would stare at the sky the way he always had. There would always be enough to eat and drink, and the weather would always be pleasant. It would be easy to ignore the fact that they were all prisoners of a far superior alien race that was capable of easily destroying the human race without a second thought. Very easy, indeed.

Paps laid back on the sofa. “So what do you want to know about me? Oh, and can I have another one of those blue drinks?”

 

THE END

 

Space Madness: Episode XXII

Posted in science fiction on June 9, 2013 by Alex

RETIREMENT

Paps felt free. Freer than he had felt since he first left for deep space. There was no longer a voice whispering in his ear, telling him what to do, controlling his actions and the actions of his ship. Hal was gone for good, the only evidence of his existence was the constant dull throb at the base of his skull. He lightly skipped around the ship, patting consoles to happily verify that they once again responded to his commands.

The rest of the crew did not feel free, and judging by the available evidence, they were correct. They had all been captured by a Remote ship rather easily. Engineer Polk had managed to get a shot at it with the positron gun, but the blast veered away from the ship as if it had more important things to do. The giant ship casually opened its bay doors and reeled them in without a struggle. The crew’s misery was only compounded by their captain’s bliss.

“I liked him better when he was grumpy all the time.” Polk was having an especially hard time with their new circumstance.

The Worm was still working full time to gain control of the ship. She was learning how to process all of the streams of data coming at her. “His puppet masters are gone now. They’ve been inside his head for years. I can sympathize with the relief he must be feeling.”

Polk was trying to get the weapons on line again. Or anything that could break them out of this ship that was hauling them back to the Remotes’ home… whatever it was. “Well, he won’t feel relieved when we get to wherever we’re going, and the Remotes start interrogating us.”

Polk kept fiddling with the power levels. He couldn’t get it above two percent, almost enough power to boil water. “By the way, that bit of information about his Duner pals controlling him via that thing in his head would have been useful to know before they all got killed.”

The Worm was concentrating. She was receiving a data stream from the scanners. “Unidentified material. Power at one point three percent.” She blinked several times. Blinking was something she was unable to do when fully engaged with the computer. “I tried to tell you, but every time I even thought about it, the computer overrode the speech center of my brain. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it would have made a difference.”

Polk nodded gravely. “There must be some kind of dampening field suppressing our power output. That’s the only explanation I can think of.”

Captain Paps’ voice bubbled over the intercom. “How are my two technical geniuses doing down there? You need any snacks? I’ve got some… umm… let’s see… vaguely flavored Space Crackers!”

Polk rubbed his temples. “He’s completely lost it. I didn’t think he had any marbles left to lose, but damn if he didn’t prove me wrong. He’s probably making Harvey wear a party hat.”

The Worm was receiving another data stream. “Gravity levels fluctuating… compensating.”

Polk started chewing on his least chewed fingernail. “I guess that means we’re almost there. I’m starting to think Paps is onto something with his insane happiness.”

———————————–

The ship had landed. The bay doors holding in the human ship Zeno slowly opened, and a blinding white light poured into it. Polk and The Worm watched from a screen in the engine room. Paps and Harvey watched it on the bridge’s main viewer. As their eyes adjusted, the blinding white light faded to a greener shade. Just outside the bay doors was an endless field of grass.

Harvey gasped at it in awe. “It’s beautiful!” Having been raised in a bio-dome on a planet with centuries of terraforming left, he had never seen a well manicured lawn before, much less an endless grassy field.

Paps sighed. His elation at being free from Hal started to tone down a bit. He had learned from experience to expect the absolute worst.

The walls of the ship began to rattle. Objects that weren’t secured fell to the floor. The rattling resolved itself into a deep booming voice. “Please exit your vehicle.”

Paps hit the intercom button. “You hear that?”

Polk responded quickly. “Yea, I heard it. If you can talk back to them could you let them know that one of us is physically attached to the ship and can’t exit?”

The booming voice returned. “Fine, you two in the command center, exit the vehicle. The other two can stay. Someone will be on their way shortly to detach you.”

Polk waited until his bones stopped rattling to reply. “Um, thanks?”

“You’re welcome.”

Paps motioned for Harvey to come along. “Let’s go, Harvey. Time for first contact.” They walked to the nearest hatch, opened it and climbed down to the ground. The grey interior of the hangar they now stood in seemed to go on for miles. It was completely featureless, in stark contrast to the rolling hills and green fields just outside of it.

The image of a man wearing a fur suit appeared in front of them. It was a hologram, but an extremely realistic one. The only evidence that it was, in fact, a hologram was that it appeared instantly in front of them. Large insects hovered around Paps and Harvey, appearing to observe them.

The hologram spoke. “I have not seen wild humans in quite some time. Tell me, how did you find our home? We have taken great care to remain hidden, you know.”

Paps hesitated before he spoke. Strategic military thoughts ran through his mind. Clearly this was a race humans would not want to make war with. The Remotes had the ability to obliterate humanity without blinking an eye. He had to convince them that they weren’t a threat, and came to the conclusion that the truth was the best way to do that. Minus the part about him blowing up one of their space stations.

So Paps told the truth. He told the furry hologram man about how his ship crashed on the Duners’ homeworld. How his first crew died. How the Duners rebuilt and upgraded his ship and ultimately controlled it.

Harvey butted in and told him how he came to discover this system. He was overjoyed that someone would actually listen to a technical description of his revolutionary parallax computation methods.

The furry hologram man listened intently as both men recounted their stories. “Fascinating. I’ll have to look up these ‘Duners,’ as you call them. I assume that they are the ones who brought the fleet.”

Paps nodded. This was definitely the most casual interrogation he had ever heard of. He decided to try his luck with a question of his own. “And who are you, exactly?”

The furry hologram man let out an embarrassed laugh. “My apologies. You may call me Bill. Our society doesn’t have much use for names. And even if we did, translating a proper noun from an infrared pulse to low frequency atmospheric disturbances would be rather pointless, wouldn’t you say? So Bill will do just fine.”

At least this Remote had a command of human language. Paps had no desire to repeat the experience of his last encounter. “That’s not exactly what I meant, um, Bill. I meant why have you brought us here? Are we prisoners?”

“Prisoners? Not at all! Well… maybe a little. I am a scientist. What you would probably call a xenobiologist. My specialty is your species. I have been granted the use of one of the continents on this planet to conduct my research. I think you should find it quite comfortable here.”

The feeling of freedom that had buoyed Paps’ mood for the last few hours was officially gone. “Research? What sort of research? I’m tired of being someone’s experiment.”

Furry Hologram Bill kept his cheerful demeanor. “Well, you don’t exactly have a choice in the matter. But if it makes you feel better, the research is extremely non-invasive. I’ll require blood and tissue samples from you every once in a while, and you can enjoy yourself the rest of the time. There’s plenty of food around that will meet all of your dietary requirements, you can live in any kind of climate that you like, and you can meet and mingle with the other humans living here. You can think of it as a nice place to retire.”

This guy was good. He had found Paps’ soft spot quickly. Retirement. The ability to stop running, to relax, to have no responsibilities, to be able to let the universe go on without him. These ideas occupied Paps’ mind constantly. They were his one sliver of hope in a universe that seemed determined to make him miserable. Which was why he couldn’t believe a word of it.

Furry Hologram Bill continued. “Of course, every so often the military boys will come down for a training exercise and attempt to capture you. But don’t worry. It’s all catch and release.”

Paps still felt like he wasn’t being told the whole story. “So let me get this straight. I get to retire here, build a cabin on a lake and relax for the rest of my life? Other than the occasional human hunt, that sounds a little too good to be true.”

Furry Hologram Bill seemed puzzled by this response. “Ah, yes. I forgot how much wild humans value their freedom. I assure you, my motives are for your benefit. I have found that your species is easier to study when left alone as much as possible. All I ask is that you don’t leave this continent. You’ll interfere with experiments on other species.”

Paps didn’t want to accept this, tempting as it was. But like Furry Hologram Bill said, he didn’t have a choice. He could accept retirement gracefully and ignore the fact of his captivity, or stubbornly hold on to what was left of his free will.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got a map of this place, do you?”

“Of course!”

Harvey raised his hand as high as he could, swatting one of the large insects accidentally. “Can I have a telescope?”

Some Remote technicians hopped on top of Paps’ ship and began to dismantle it.

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.

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.”