My first Sci-Fi novella. People were always coming up to me after reading my first 2 novels, saying, "Davve, that was pretty good Science Fiction!". I would try to explain that they were dark fantasy but after many times, i just now say: "Thank you." Even though someone did compare it to "Star Trek". My muses on this one were Larry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke. Astute readers will probably find faults in the actual "science" involved but, oh well...
The Flying Dutchman
I know I've done some stupid things...after all, I did do time for murder. It was partly my wife's fault but unfortunately she wasn't around to be punished...again. I had handled that problem quite effectively.
You see, I had found her in the arms of another guy when I came home one night from my job at the rehabilitation centre. It wasn't much of a job, believe me: I was just a custodian due to my physical problems. When I saw them lying there, naked and asleep on what I had always figured was my bed, I went ballistic. Moving very quietly but quickly, I had went out and grabbed the largest knife we had in the kitchen. I then had reverse my path and butchered both of them. My right arm, which I had to use, was bloodied to the shoulder by the time I was finished. I then sat down beside the bed and howled like a wolf.
Neighbours in the building, who, of course, never heard things like break-ins and rapes going on outside their doors, heard me and contacted the police. When they arrived, I actually open the door, the knife still in my grip. The three big guys jumped and handcuffed me. One stayed with me while the other two went into the bedroom. They came out looking pale and shaken. The three of them then beat me up.
I suppose some people would consider that the low point of their lives. Not me...I had been born soon after what was known widely as the “Short War”. It was a period of three days when the Soviet Union and the and the United States of America had a limited nuclear exchange. Unfortunately, Canada had taken most of the damage as the anti-ballistic missiles the Americans had said weren't there turned out to be real and the Russian missiles turned out to be poorly made.
Canada received almost all of the strikes and of course the air-bursts rained radiation over a large area of that landmass. My mother and father met at a reclamation centre and fell in love. They quickly got married as they thought their days were numbered. Fortunately, the other NATO nations launched a slightly smaller attack on key Russian targets and then said, basically, “Stop it! Both of you! They struck at Russia because, apparently, they fired the first volley.
The attacks stopped and the rest of the world kindly tried to help the Canadians with their various problems. There had to be a massive cleanup of the dead and attempts to save anyone from radiation sickness. Neither of my parents were affected that way. I was.
My mother's pregnancy with me was difficult. The health system was in a bit of a disarray after everything that happened. It's my birthday today so it's been 30 years. When my mother first saw me, my dad told me one night when he was in his cups, she screamed and fainted. I had extremely short legs for the rest of my body and my left arm was missing. My right arm was disproportionately long. Dad also told me that I was about the ugliest baby he had ever seen. So my life, right from the start, was no picnic.
I won't bore you with the details of my childhood or adolescence. I'll leave that to your imagination. In a way I'm kind of wondering why I am even bothering recording this as I doubt anyone will ever hear it.
But back to the hell that was my life. By the time I was an adult, I was only around 120 cm tall. Because I used it in all my life, my right arm was extremely muscular and when I learned how to use it, bullies begins leave me alone. I even got some education as you can tell by my speech...although, my higher education was only over the last year. I had been kicked out of a secondary school for throwing a jerk out a second storey window. This, of course, gave me a juvenile record, too. That was when I had to go out and look for employment; all of the jobs I had involved me being out of sight of any customers. Though it wasn't much, the janitor job at the rehabilitation centre was about the best job I ever had.
But of course, because of my killing rampage, all that had gone down the toilet. My trial, which the papers called “The Mutant Murders”, was pretty much a fiasco for me as I had admitted to the crimes and I was hoping to receive a fairly light sentence, like “manslaughter” or some shrink would announce me “not guilty by reason of insanity”. Unfortunately, I saw two psychiatrists and both of them pronounced me fit to be tried for the charge of murder in the first degree, two counts. My defence attorney merely went through the motions of everything he had to do...I will give him credit for trying to get me life imprisonment, at least.
Along came the preliminary day of my trial. The whole thing lasted only four days. Mom and Dad, of course, weren't there and most of the defence witnesses gave not much more than character references. On the last day of the trial, I was called up to be questioned and I told the honest truth: yes I had done it and I knew what I was doing when I did it. There was much angry murmuring in the courtroom.
Shortly after that, the jury went to deliberate. They came back out after only 15 minutes. The verdict was murder in the first. Because, even after 25 years, the justice system in Canada was still in a shambles. That meant that people were usually sentenced right after the verdict. The judge looked at me with contempt and said: “I hereby sentence you to death by hanging for your atrocious crimes. You will be held in the most convenient penitentiary until your punishment will be carried out. I, also, will be urging the penal authorities to do that as soon as possible. May God have mercy on your soul.”
I decided that the last sentence was just from habit.
So I was took to the most convenient prison, which for the life of me I can't remember which it was, as I was in shock. I had a cell on Death Row which, while small, at least had a comfortable bed. The only time that the other deadheads and I were allowed outside was always after the Sun had gone down. We were allowed our rations of cigarettes, usually only two, every time we went out. I never got to know anything about the other guys as we weren't allowed to talk to each other. I really didn't want to know about them, anyway. There were sometimes where I wondered if they had been as bad as I had.
The guards woke us up by banging on the bars of our cells around 6 AM daily. Our meals were brought to us and, in my opinion, it was about the only thing pleasant about my stay. Once while I was in there, one of my fellows on the Row, had his “day” arrive. They actually gave him a special last supper: he had ordered an extra large pepperoni pizza and a bottle of beer. I was a big fan of pizza so the faint odour of it was so maddening, I had to lie on my bed with my pillow over my face until he was done. After a while, they came and got him and he went out to do “The Dance”.
Time crawled by. Of course, we weren't allowed mark up our cell walls or have calendars so I quickly lost track. The library guy came by every day so I tried to make time pass by reading as much as I could. I think that was the first of my oncoming adult education, as I had never been much of a reader.
I'm sure I was in there a lot longer then the judge had suggested. I asked the guards about it and they usually responded with a version of “Don't worry about it, Shorty. Maybe it's taking time to find enough rope to reach down to your neck.”
Obviously, the guards were a bunch of real fucking cards. At least, they weren't physically abusive. I guess they figured that a man condemned to death had things bad enough.
After lunch one day, I was lying on my bed considering having a snooze. I felt like I was being watched. I opened my eyes.
There was a guy outside my cell, checking me over quite intently. This kind of irritated me so I bounced out of bed and went to the bars, saying, “What are you looking at, ass-hole?”
He was a tall sturdy man with an intelligent face and blonde hair. He said, “Sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you. I'm glad you stood up for me, though; you are as short as advertised. I've come here with a proposition...you do know what that word means, don't you?”
I snarled, “Just because I look like this, doesn't make me a moron! What makes you think I want to talk to anyone?”
“Well, I can get you off Death Row, for one reason...”
I suddenly became all ears and leaned forward, hungrily.
“And how can you do that?” I rasped.
“Let's say that we are looking for a group of men to help us perform a service that will help all mankind. All you have to do is to get some much needed schooling, train your ass off and fill out some paperwork, and you are pardoned and out of here. I have to warn you, by law, that it is a dangerous assignment but then you're about to die here, aren't you?”
I stepped back from the bars, staring at him. Then I moved forward again and replied, “I'll come with you.”
A day later, I was released and I had my pardon in my pocket. I had to sign some documents, most of them seeming to be disclaimers and acknowledging I actually knew what I was getting into, while actually I wasn't quite sure...but it had got me off Death Row so I really didn't care. The man who had come for me said his name was Sam Chandler and that he worked for the government of Canada. I had gathered that from the forms I had filled out. It was still a mystery about what they really wanted from me.
I was taken to what remained of Toronto to what turned out to be a special kind of school. There was also a small hospital incorporated with it. I ended up in the hospital first. They operated on my brain, placing a gadget inside of it. I was told that this bit of electronics was to increase the amount of haemoglobin in my blood, therefore getting more oxygen to my brain and making me, hopefully, brighter. They also offered with a prosthetic left arm but I angrily refused it, telling them I had got along for over 25 years with the one I had. I was surprised when they took this without complaint.
It was entirely a new experience for me. They started me off at high school level information first and, and what seemed like no time at all, I was learning at a university level. It was mostly math, astrophysics, quantum physics, and astronomy. The strangest part was that all my teachers were very nice to me. No one in a authority over me before had treated me that way.
At times, I felt like I was in basic training for the Army or something. They worked me hard, doing the best to condition me for rough treatment, I finally decided. They actually had me run, more than once, 10 km. With my short legs, this was pure agony. There was one difference from what I had heard about martial training that had been described to me: if I was too tired following whatever, they would give me a day off to rest. Plus they fed me like a pig because I needed all the calories I could get. My legs became like to short pieces of hardwood and my right arm was muscled like a bodybuilder's.
I think a year had passed. The whole time it had been almost the same as being in prison, as I never left the school or hospital grounds. I was beginning to wonder what they had in store for me. Around that time, I found out.
By this time, my “keeper” was a guy by the name of Smite. It is rather aggressive sounding name that didn't really suit him as he was soft-spoken and bookish. He had also suffered what I had suffered: in his case, where his ears should've been there were just holes in his head. He often told me, when we took time outs, that when he was a child he had suffered greatly from ear infections. He even joked about it, saying that it was good his eyes were 20/20 as he couldn't wear glasses.
He was the one who finally told me what was ahead. When he told me, I had to excuse myself and go to my lodgings and lie down for several hours to think about it.
Apparently, NASA in the United States and some bright boys in Canada had decided something had to be done about flights to other star systems. Their main concern was the ever-increasing population of the Earth and the ruination of its biosphere. Of course, the problem was the great distances and the time it took to traverse those light-years to reach another planet. They had some good space telescopes orbiting the Earth that had picked out what they decided were thousands of planets able to sustain life as we knew it. But again, time and distance were mind-boggling.
Then along came our “saviour”: a fringe-scientist by the name of Garfield Griffin. He claimed to have created a “virtual particle collector” or VPC, for short. He said that with this attached to a ship of a certain design, he could get the velocity of the vehicle up to very near light speed. He even suggested it might create a wormhole of the right size for the ship pass into it with out disrupting it. He showed designs of the ship, with the actual thrusters on winglike structures on each side, their drive flames to be channelled 45° from the ship. The collector would have to be on a strong but relatively thin metal needle protruding from the front for nearly 10 km., due to the hellish amount of radiation which would probably be created by the passage of the ship.
The living quarters would be relatively small. That's why they were looking for someone like me. They would be at the end of the the main ship but I would have multiple views on all sides and especially the direction I was travelling. Closest to the ship, but still a part of the environs, would be the command module which would be in a weightless condition. Then there was the hibernation couch and some strange looking tables and chairs. The back section was combination kitchen and sanitary area. It spun on its axis to simulate about 0.33G, for in that area gravity was required. There was a specially maintained hydroponic garden which would supply me with the necessary proteins, carbohydrates, etc., for the kitchen machinery to make my meals. It was also my main oxygen source.
And also, as I mentioned, there was the hibernation couch which would also serve as my bed. I didn't like it. It had an uncanny resemblance to a coffin, only with a see-through lid. Another thing that kind of bothered me was that some of my waste would be sanitized and any usable chemicals would return from whence they came by way of the kitchen. There would be several hundred kilograms of dried rations, too. I made up my mind to use those all up first before I tried the kitchen...although, I then remembered from where the water I was going to use on the rations was originating.
I went through what I guess was the astronaut training they had been using for the past 40 years or more. I learned how not to vomit every time I was weightless and I learned how to use controls of the ship, in a simulator.
And I got to work with Morris for the first time.
Morris was a new generation of computer, who would be on board the ship with me, looking after the things I might miss a lot quicker than I would be able to, controlling the VPC and letting me know when it was ready to be used. Morris was quite different from any artificial intelligence I had ever encountered as he was not totally artificial. He had been a doctor by the name of Morris Greenspan, a colleague of Griffin. They worked on the VPC together and he had a credit as a co-creator. They were hoping to win the Nobel Prize For Science, once all the field tests were finished.
Unfortunately, Morris had developed a very aggressive form of leukaemia. He had only a few months to live. The best neurosurgeons money could attract came in and removed, in what I understood was a very difficult operation, his brain and were able to keep it alive. Next came the electronic wizards who worked with the brain surgeons to incorporate Morris' brain into a IBM 592 supercomputer. They were successful, although for a long time, I was told that they had a hard time getting the input/output systems to work correctly. The biologists, chemists and the tech people also had a bugger of a time setting systems up to keep Morris healthy for what could be a long trip.
By the time I met him, I was able to speak to him and vice verse and he even would generate an animated face which I was told looked exactly like his living one. It was very intriguing because, if I got up to light a cigarette and walk around the room, he would follow me with his head and eyes. We got to know each other quite well, which was necessary as we both be looking after each other. Fortunately for me, he had many redundancies in his systems and it was, I was told, almost impossible for him to screw up. Of course, it was me I worried about.
So I trained six months with Morris. He explained to me that even if a wormhole did not form, the mass collector would bend space in front of us, allowing us to reach incredible speeds, of course with careful augmentations of our acceleration so I wouldn't be crushed like a bug under a heel.
They finally took Morris and I to the real ship, swinging around the Earth in a 100 kilometre orbit. There was a bay, which Morris and his tonnes of support materials were carefully placed. I was taken by shuttle to the ship's airlock. There was no connection between them so I had to float across from one to the other.
As I waited for the pressure to equalize, I appreciated how economical my suit was. Gone were the days of the bulky garments they had to wear in earlier spaceflights. I don't know what the material was in the suit but it fit almost like a second skin. Of course, I had to carry air on my back but the carbon dioxide was somehow released into the outside vacuum. I had been trained how to use it but I had not been told how it worked. Apparently, Morris had files that would help me with any repairs necessary. There was a small one man globe that I could land on a planet and return to the ship but they didn't really think I was going to use it or the suit, for that matter.
The telltales in my suit told me it was safe to enter the ship. I step through the circular door and, smirking, “I dub thee 'The Flying Dutchman'!”
Actually, that name had been picked out while I was in my training. My name is Piter van der Decken, so I thought it was in reference to my Netherlander heritage. I didn't find out how wrong I was until much later.
My main orders while I was on Earth had been purposefully vague, as a security precaution. I'm not sure who they were hiding this information from but I've learned not to ask too many questions about things like that.
I floated up to the controls and belted myself to my seat. It began to give off soothing warmth. Beside my seat, as promised, was my pre-flight checklist. It had 56 items that I had to look after before I could start out. I'll tell you I was definitely itching to get going, after all the training.
The nice thing about the checklist was Morris could help me with it fast. While I would go about the command module and the living quarters pushing buttons and flicking switches to make sure everything was working as it should, my computer buddy was running all the necessary diagnostics on the rest of the Dutchman.
The most important piece of equipment, of course, was the VPC. I had seen it for the first time in reality when we had approached the Dutchman. They had told me that the wire was 3 m across and had superconductive wiring and the top-secret VPC channel that was to supply my ship's entire energy needs, from propulsion to life support. The VPC was encased in a 2 km wide field of energy (also top-secret). The only thing I found unsettling was that the wire had a emergency system, in case the wormhole became more like a relatively low gravity black hole and began to devour the wire. Basically, it was a small explosive charge which would fling the wire away from the ship. When I asked what I should do when that happened, I had been told that I was to have Morris find the Sun and, using our “almost” (99.76%) total-conversion drive, accelerate as much as I could stand in the right direction, and have me go into hibernation until we coasted into the solar system. I had no idea how long it would take. If you accelerate just to one gravity, relativity raises its head fairly quickly and time-dilation becomes a factor.
I had asked just before I left Earth what would happen if it didn't work. I was told I'd end up back in jail but I would not suffer the death penalty. Due to my help with their project, I would probably get 20 years with a chance of parole in seven years. I didn't complain as it sounded a lot better than doing The Dance.
After I had went through the checklist, I floated down to the living area, waited for it to rotate so I could get its chair and table, and had a cigarette. The air on the ship was recycled as much as possible and I had been told I could keep my filthy habit, within reason.
Across from me on the wall beyond the table was a visual and audio input/output communication unit. Morris' calm face watched me for a moment, then his speaker came out with: “Piter, the countdown has begun. We have approximately 45 minutes until launch. I am now supposed to give you the first of your orders.”
This caught me by surprise. I asked, rather hotly, “What? Earth not talking to me anymore?”
“It's because of the security,” Morris replied, patiently. “We'll be in touch with them using the maser from time to time but mostly only for reports. Everything else I am supposed to convey to you.”
Listening to the tone of his voice, I wondered to myself, Does Morris still have emotions? I never thought to ask.
I questioned Morris on that topic right then. He responded, “Well, I believe I do. I have all my memories, the good times and the bad. I do know I am just as curious as you are about the mission we are about to take. And I passed the Turing test more than once. I was told I would also be cautious...so obviously my fears are still intact. I am surprised (see, there's one!) that during all our talks, you never thought to ask before now. Nothing to worry about...we have plenty of time to get to know each other even better than we do now.”
He then went on to tell me once more that all the diagnostics had been run and everything was “in the green”. He then told me that it was probably time for me to take my seat in the command chair. As I pushed my way back there, I was wondering who was actually in command of the ship.
As I pushed off to head for the command chair, I queried, “You could've done this mission all by yourself. I am beginning to feel like access weight.”
Softly, he replied,”Remember: if I was alone, sooner or later it would get too much to bear. I am part human, after all.”
Another surprise! Morris could push expression in his voice! I marvelled again at how well he was put together.
I reach my chair, which was on the left, and strapped myself in as tightly as I could. Suddenly, the straps tightened. I found them comfortable and more secure. I looked at the view-screen in front of me and saw Morris' kind face regarding me.
“Thanks Morris! That feels a lot better!”
The seat now fit me like a glove.
The countdown came to the last minute and then Morris counted by seconds.
Finally, he rattled off, “3,2,1...both thrusters firing, acceleration has begun.”
I felt pressure on my back against the cushions on the chair. There was an eerie illusion that the nose of the ship was slowly rising. I heard metallic clicks and clangs behind me. I turned my head to look right and saw I was looking downward. The chairs and table were now resting on a floor, the hibernation couch close by. I saw rungs of the ladder that went down the wall. Where the ladder reached the deck, there was a circular door with a latch.
Morris came over the comm, explaining, “This is another thing that I could never understand why they didn't tell you about it. When we are under thrust, you'll be able to move to the living area and back, now. Otherwise, well, you could see there would be difficulties.
“If we are not accelerating, the kitchen area will be the only place with any gravity. The orders that just opened now in my memory say that 3 times a day, if you are not in hibernation, thrust will discontinue for a period of three hours so you can cook food to eat, shower and do any toiletry you need. I suggest that we do that routine for at least a week starting now so that you will be well fed and be able to exercise under thrust. This is because I believe you will, after a time, want to use a hibernation couch to relieve your boredom. If you are at optimum condition, it makes it easier for the couch to maintain you as you sleep.”
“Uh-huh,” I replied noncommittally. I removed my helmet, put it on the bracket behind the chair and began to work my way down to the first deck. I asked Morris, “Are these 'little orders' going to continue popping up all the time?”
“I don't know. It's just the way I was programmed: I don't know orders until the time is right. All of this, Piter, was set up to make you comfortable and help you survive. Your sarcasm is unwarranted.”
I surprised myself, as I reached the first deck, by saying, “I'm sorry, Morris. I'm luckier than a lot of guys: I'm alive, I have a purpose and I have you as my copilot and friend.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, really. Thank you. Now, why don't you try out the chair and table. There is a row of spigots by the table. They are for, left to right, water, malt liquor and coffee, with the amounts of sugar and milk you like doled out in 300 millilitre portions.”
I tried the coffee. It poured into my cup exactly as it would if I was still on Earth. I found Morris was right: it was exactly the way I liked it. A screen I never noticed before lit up in front of me, showing Morris' face. He had a very serious look on it.
“You are due to receive the first maser contact shortly. We won't be able to answer with ours as it is powerful enough to blanket any radio transmissions on Earth.
“While you are doing that, I will quickly run the tests on the anti-collision lasers. We want to make sure they're working, don't we?”
I grinned at him and replied, “You bet we do!”
The anti-collision were indeed a necessity. Not only did we have to worry about random rocks floating into our path but there was also the concern that, as we reached appreciable fractions of light speed, our mass would increase a great deal. The mass could, because of gravity, attract all sorts of unwanted guests.
There was a sudden piercing whistle. It lasted only a few seconds then cut off. Morris' Face vanished from the screen and was replaced by that of Smite's. He gave me a greeting which I didn't respond to as the distances already involved would cause a noticeable time delay. He basically told me most of the stuff Morris had and said my time was my own but to keep on the schedule of rest and keeping in shape. He also reminded me that there was plenty of entertainment in the computer's databanks: movies, music and books.
The last thing he said he issued as an order, which caught me by surprise. He told me that once I had become used to the schedule and running the ship, I was to go into hyper sleep, only to be awakened when we had passed the Oort Cloud.
He finished with, “Good luck, say hello to Morris for me and...out.”
His face vanished from the screen, which then went blank. I felt strangely like a guy who had taken his best girl out for a really nice day and only received a hug at the door. I sat there for what seemed a long time before the screen came on again, showing me Morris' concerned face.
“Are you okay, Piter? My bio scans show that you are in a state of upset.”
I shook my head and replied slowly, “It just seemed so unemotional. He didn't even thank me for the good job I had done so far.”
“Well, the maser does use a lot of power so I imagine they couldn't have a long conversation with you. I wouldn't worry about it. They are probably suffering from the kind of fatigue some people get after seeing a job through...especially one that is so important to Mankind.
“Also, new data has been unlocked for me. They felt like the schedule we had first talked about would cause us to take too long to reach our objective. This ship, for all its wonders, does have its flaws, the kitchen set up being one of them. You'll be happy to know that everything else is still running at optimal levels. And, as to our previous discussion, I am about to turn off the drives so you can eat and do anything else you need gravity for; and, by the way, there is a toilet at the head of the hyper sleep chamber. It folds out when you press the button with the symbol of a toilet on it. I guess that makes sense, doesn't it. You'll be able to use it when we are under thrust, obviously. I'm sorry about these sudden directions but it was the way they built me: I only know certain things when it's time to know them.”
I began to say something along the lines of: “Don't worry about it!” when I found myself floating off the chair. I quickly “swam” away from the walls as everything was being rotated and put away behind them. The decks opened also. I worked my way down to the kitchen area.
I cooked myself bacon and eggs in what I was assuming was some type of microwave oven. They came out tasting quite good. There was a coffee spigot there, too, and the coffee was just as I liked it again. Of course, it poured out of the spigot a lot differently than on Earth. You could actually see the large drops of liquid as it flowed from the tap. At a third of a g, I felt very light on my feet and I had a bit of trouble keeping the food in my stomach. Remembering my training, I was able to avoid any disasters.
I used the sanitary facilities and I even shaved. I kind of smiled at myself while I did it: Morris was the only one who was going to see me for a untold length of time but still, I didn't want to look like a slob. The centripetal force on that section of the ship worked perfectly, especially when the toilet was in use. I turned it off and slowly became weightless again.
I pushed off and grabbed the table so I was at the centre of the living area. I reached out and opened the hyper sleep chamber and started to hook myself up to life support equipment. Mostly it involved IV needles. I also stuck sensors over various parts of my body that would make sure I was healthy. Morris, of course, would be monitoring me while I slept. I still didn't like the coffin-like aspects of the device but I figured it was best to give it a go.
I closed the lid and let out a ragged sigh. I felt very claustrophobic. Morris suddenly spoke and I just about jumped out of the contraption.
“Remember, Piter, to put the sleep cap on your head. I guarantee you will feel more comfortable in a few moments.”
The sleep cap, as he called it, would put a small electric current through the part of my brain that controlled my consciousness. It was, on the ship that was so streamlined and modular, a bit strange looking: it was an actual leather cap and it was covered with a mass of wires. I imagine it looked pretty silly on my head.
Morris, speaking softly, began the countdown to going under thrust again. He obviously turned on the sleeping mechanism, as the countdown got lower I started to fall asleep. The last thing I remember was the banging and shifting of the chamber as it rotated.
An endless time passed. Occasionally, I dreamed...it may have been several times. Of course, no one ever remembers them all. The last one I had was a nightmare.
I was sitting in a mall on Earth, in my suit. I had a bowl sitting between my knees. I was very hungry and thirsty. I realized I must have been so useless, I had been forced to beg for my food. People walked by, some glancing at me but most ignoring me. I looked at the bowl and I saw it was empty.
I realized I was dreaming. I said to myself, Wake up!
But then, I answered myself: I can't until he allows me to!
For the life of me, I couldn't remember who I meant. I struggled to see get to my feet but I found that they would not respond. I became very fearful...I wanted to wake up! Now I noticed that everyone was ignoring me. My fear turned to terror.
Suddenly, I heard Morris' voice, sounding somewhat alarmed, saying, “It's okay, Piter! You'll be fully conscious in a few seconds!”
It was as he said: after a very brief time, I opened my eyes. I was looking at the ceiling with its supposedly calming colour of blue. I took the cap off my head and, because Morris opened the lid for me, I didn't smash my face into it as I jerked up.
I swung my legs over the edge and sat there, trying to calm my breathing. We were obviously under thrust, still. As in the dream, I was very hungry and thirsty.
“ I'm sorry, Piter! I've been very busy and I forgot to check on you for a few minutes. Once I realized your brain waves were showing activity that indicated an unpleasant dream, I woke you. I am going to turn off the motors now, so you can get yourself some much-needed food. Turns out that the hyper sleep chamber is not incredibly efficient at keeping you nourished.”
“How long?” I asked.
“Eight months by my internal clock. Sorry, again: new orders became apparent to me after you went into hyper-sleep: I was to let you remain unconscious until we were well on our way. Theses Draconian changes are upsetting! Of course, objective time has probably been dilated by quite a bit, as our velocity is quite high. This has presented some unforeseen problems. Nothing Man has made has ever moved as fast as we are at this point, so I'm basically learning as I go.
“The main problem is radiation level outside the ship, due to our passage. Fortunately, I am extremely hardened against the effects. But I have been constantly concerned that the dangerous radiation might get you. I was able to get the VPC's shield to form a parabolic curve and it seems to be keeping a large percentage of the gamma rays away.”
I broke in with, “What is our velocity?”
“It is a high fraction of c but I'm having difficulty getting readings. A lot of the problem is I can't find much that our velocity is relative to at the moment. As some astrophysicists had predicted, the stars behind our path have red-shifted to the point that their hard to detect. The opposite, of course, is happening in the direction we are travelling.”
“Blue-shifting?” I asked, just to let him know that I knew what he was talking about.
“Yes,” he replied then lapsed into one of those silences that I always found unsettling.
“ Morris,” I prodded it at him, “what's the problem?”
There was another pause but he finally answered: “As I told you a long time ago, I have most of my emotions. Right now, I am afraid. But my programming supersedes that and I must turn the VPC on, full-power, very shortly. I imagine if you know how I feel it doesn't help your state of mind.”
I barked, “You're fucking right it does! What is your main concern, Morris?”
“We are actually the third ship of its type that has been launched. We received signals from the other two ships as they left the Solar System behind and never heard from them again. The first ship was called “Endeavour” and had two pilots, one Air Force and one Navy. The second one was called “Paradise Lost” (the pilots picked the name) and vanished in exactly the same manner. It was piloted by Jackson and Embry, both Marines. That ship also had some weapons on the hull, in case the first ship had run into hostiles. In both cases, they were all volunteers. My programming had made it so that I didn't remember this until just recently. I'm so sorry!”
I was seething. I snarled, “And here, all this time, I thought you were my friend! 'Sorry' doesn't quite help! Tell me, if you can, what kind of time-frame are we talking about here?”
Morris, obviously mortified about what has been done to me, replied, “The first ship was launched 10 years before we were and the second came five years after it. Most of the hidden data that was built into me is now available. Anything you ask I can tell you. What do you want to know?”
“Can we make it back to Earth?”
“It would be very difficult because, as I said, I have very few reference points. Plus, I would have to use the smaller thrusters to turn the ship and decelerate to lose our intrinsic velocity...and doing that type of thing might kill you. Even if you where in the command chair the whole time, I don't think you would be able to survive long enough. For one thing, I wouldn't be able to get food to you.”
“Well, it looks like I'm a dead man, anyway! What do you think, truthfully, that we should do, Morris?”
He left me waiting for a few seconds and then responded, “I think we might as well continue the mission because, at least, we would accomplish something worthy of all this effort. Do you agree?”
I sighed and whispered, “You're probably right. Maybe we would find the others and could pool our resources to figure a way out of this jam.”
“All right, it's decided, then. I will stop accelerating long enough for you to make it to your chair in the command module. The VPC has been on and I'm happy to announce it does actually work. At least, it has supplied us with enough matter to keep the main thrusters operating at maximum efficiency. What I'm going to do is turn it on to full power and see and record what ever happens, just in case we are able to get back to Earth to report our findings.”
“I'm becoming less and less worried about what we find out for Earth. I thought they were helping me and they were helping me by being taken me off Death Row but now I'm beginning to wonder...” I snarled, again. I then sat down and waited for free-fall.
It came quite suddenly but I swam to the module and strapped myself into the seat. As usual, Morris adjusted it. I looked at some different views of the surrounding vistas on my screens and I saw why Morris was having such a hard time orienting us. The stars in front looked to me as bluish white and as I viewed back along our path, I saw that the visible light of all those suns had created almost a rainbow from bow to stern views. I had read somewhere that this might be like it would be if you approached light speed.
Morris, still sounding upset, began the countdown to maximum power to the VPC. He reached zero and many things happened at once.
First thing, it felt like I had been punched several times in many places on my body. Nausea hit me powerfully and I vomited. I spat what didn't come out of my mouth onto the screen. Strangely enough, my next action was to reach out and try to clean that mess. Doing this didn't last very long as suddenly I received what seemed to be a very large number of gs, which slammed my head far enough back that it connected with my helmet. I blacked out.
I don't know how long I was that way. When I finally opened my eyes, I looked at the screen that previously had been showing the strange star fields. It was blank.
My first thought was, Great! Now the observation cameras are damaged!
Morris' voice, loud and concerned, came over the comm and the ship's main speaker.
“Piter! Piter! Are you still with me, man?”
“Yeah, I'm alive. My screen is down and I feel like I've been worked over by several burly men. Are you all right?”
“I lost your physical telemetry for a few seconds, which is for me a long time! I see, now, you have sustained several bruise-like injuries. You also received a blow to the head but there are no signs of fracture or concussion. It probably knocked you out, though, didn't it?”
Rubbing the back of my head and checking for blood I told him, “Well, the telemetry is working now, thank God! I was out but only briefly. I ache all over. I was sick to my stomach, too!”
It felt as if we were back to one g, again, which was comforting. I worked my way out of the contoured seat and climbed down. I took off my suit and stripped down to my underwear to check the damage. I did have several bruises on my body, including my face. I sat down and poured myself a glass of malt liquor. For some reason, it never tasted so good.
Morris asked, “Do you need any painkillers?”
“Workin' on it,” I replied, chugging the first glass and pouring another.
“I don't think that's such a good idea after receiving some head trauma.”
“Don't you worry about me, right now. Check out the cameras instead.”
When Morris ran a diagnostic on something, it usually took only seconds. This time, is stretched out into several minutes, time for me to have two more glasses. I was feeling a bit fuzzy by the time he got back to me.
“Hey, you were gone a long time for you. Are the cameras 'fried' or not?”
“All cameras are working nominally,” he said in a flat voice. “The reason the screen is blank is because there is nothing to see.”
“What?” I yelled.
In the same unemotional tone he continued, “Hypothesis: we are no longer in 'normal' space.”
I repeated my last word.
“When the VPC went into action at full power, we became so massive that we 'fell' into a subspace of space-time. We are, I think, more moving faster than the speed of light...and, at the moment, I have no answer to our predicament.”
I felt my belly fall to my feet. For second, I thought I was going to pass out. I put my hands on the table and stood up, shakily, now wishing I hadn't drank the alcohol so quickly. I rummaged through my brain to remember all I learned back at the university. I came up with a question, not an answer.
“Shouldn't that have put us in a different quantum reality and why would it feel like I'm pulling Earth gravity?” I asked.
Morris answered immediately, obviously expecting the question, “The subspace is part of our universe. As to the gravity that's something I still haven't processed yet, either.”
“Is the VPC still on?”
“Yes,” Morris replied. “Do you think, as I do, that would make a difference?”
“Well, to my mind, it can't make it any worse!”
He and I discussed it for a few minutes and we decided it would be better if I was in the command chair. I climb my way up, still noting that I felt like I was carrying my usual 60 kg.
After I was safely buckled in, Morris requested a countdown. I replied, “Fuck it! Just do it!”
He did. There was the same jarring feeling as previous, although this time I wasn't sick to my stomach...it was pretty empty.
I looked at the screen and it blazed with stars. I checked all the cameras and the stars were thick in all directions, as far as I could tell. One star, actually a double one, seem to be directly ahead of us. The main star actually showed a red disk and the other one was a brilliant spark of blue passing behind it. I was glad of the polarized screening on the cameras as I feared the blue star might possibly be blinding to the naked eye.
Morris spoke up, “We seem to be in that binary's gravity well. The red is class M, just big enough to warrant the name “giant”. The smaller white star is class A and has about the same mass. I doubt there are any planets, as the tides from the binary would probably make that impossible. I will continue to scan, anyway.”
“Why does it matter if it has planets or not? I mean I could land with the pod on any planet Earth's mass or less in return but what use is that you?” I demanded to know.
“Well, you must admit it's better than ripping through subspace not knowing where you are!”
“ Do you know where we are?”
“I'm going to bring the aft camera on for you.”
A picture swam into view: many, many stars...the same as anywhere else. But there was one major difference in the view aft: beyond the stars, I could make out a great spiral galaxy in the background. I began to shake.
Morris, obviously worried, told me to sit down at the table below and have a coffee and cigarette. I told him I just wanted to be quiet for a few minutes. In those few minutes, I drank 2 cups of coffee and smoked five cigarettes. I then poured myself some of the alcohol. Thrust had lowered to about half a g. Then I looked up and rasped, “Is it ours?”
It took him a maddeningly long time to answer. Finally he did respond: “Sorry I took so long. Even with my computing speed, it takes time to answer a question like that. You must remember, as far as we know, we may be the first sentient beings to view it from this position. But, yes: I believe it's the Milky Way Galaxy. If I'm correct, that means were in one of the orbiting globular clusters. Distance from Sun: several kiloparsecs.”
“I'm go to go and sleep. I'll even put on that stupid cap. Wake me when you've done what you consider a satisfying scan.”
I climbed into the chamber, which was more and more looking like a coffin as I probably was going to die here. With the cap on, I was almost instantly asleep. This time no bad dreams.
Morris had allowed me to regain almost full consciousness because he spoke to me, saying, “I found some interesting anomalies in the system.”
I struggled out of the chamber. I felt like I had been rolling around inside it like a pea in a can. I complained to Morris about it. His response was that he had made some course corrections and they'd been over 2 gs, a few times. We were in free-fall. I asked him about that, too.
“As I surmised, this system has no planets, as I mentioned before you went to sleep. However, I found several asteroids in highly eccentric orbits. While I was checking on them, my telescopes detected a group of metallic objects approximately one Earth orbit from the binary. Using the secondary thrusters, I was able to aim the ship in that direction. It turns out they are all other spaceships.”
I demanded, “Show me a picture of them! The best one you have!”
The view-screen lit in front of me. It was hard to make out the scale but they were all approximately the same size. There was around 30 of them. Almost all were unrecognizable to me but then two caught my eye: they were both almost identical to the Dutchman. One was shorter than the other. Morris told me the shorter one was the Endeavour. Not too far, at least in planetary space, he had got a picture of Paradise Lost. The difference between the two was the first look dead while the other showed lights. The former also had a longer “stinger” for its VPC, which appeared damaged.
“Have you tried communicating with them?”
Morris answered, slowly, “Yes. I received no response from either.”
Just as those words left his speaker, the screen was filled with static and I found myself looking at two very unkempt men. The moment I saw them, I realized they were drunk. This didn't offend me at all as I had already had two glasses of liquor.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome, to PAL1!” the taller and filthier of the two cried. “I guess we are your welcoming committee! The boys in the other ship and the ships not belonging to Earth unfortunately won't be joining us. I am Embry, Captain for the Day and my buddy here is Jackson, First Mate of the, etc.! I see you got caught on the same 'tram-line' as we did!”
I started to introduce myself and my strange companion but Embry cut me off, “You mean you got Greenspan with you? Christ, you old cunt! We thought you were dead by now!”
Embry's voice had changed; I couldn't put my finger on it but it seemed to be falsely jovial.
Morris replied for himself, “In a way I am dead...my brain was merged with the computer for this trip.”
Jackson, who was shorter and younger but totally bald, peered in at me through the screen and asked, “Wad's your name, fella?”
“Piter van der Decken. Glad to meet you both!”
“Well, where glad to see youse, too! You're the first human bean we've encountered, alive, for a decade or so.”
“What about the crew of the Endeavour?”
“Oh, them? They killed themselves a year or so back. And the rest? Well, those guys and us checked out the other ships and found crews, some human, some...not so much, but they were all dead, too. Most of them had been here so long they were mummified!”
Embry cut in with, “What was really odd was most of the ships are basically of the same design. Of course, the first two from Earth had to carry extra fuel in balloons around their hulls. We've noticed you guys must have a better fuel situation than we did. Full matter to energy conversion?”
I replied slowly, “Pretty close. Nearly 99%.”
Embry smiled at me and went on with that same bogus good natured sound to his voice, “Well, aren't you guys lucky!”
Morris said to me through our private link in my mastoid: “Something is not right here. Don't trust them!”
I nodded, knowing several cameras were looking at me.
“We weren't so lucky,” Embry sighed. “We popped into normal space in the system and one of the few sizable boulders hit our VPC and the emergency system got set off and the explosive charge blew most of it away. So, you see, we had no way to get our fusion reactor fuel. We plotted a course around the suns that slowly cancelled out most of our velocity and old Jackson here was able to put us in orbit quite close to the rest of the ships. Funny thing was, the first Earth ship came in after us and its mass from its incredible velocity tugged on us on off to almost send us tumbling into the red giant. Good thing Jackson here is such a good pilot or we would've been fucked!”
“They are locking their defensive laser cannons on us; I know because I've been in constant communication with their computer!” Morris said loudly in my head.
“Do they have as many as we do?” I whispered.
I hissed, “Well, lock on them and fire! I don't want them to get a free shot at us!”
A second later, things began to happen very rapidly. An outside observer would not, of course, would not have been able to see the beams in the vacuum of space. They would have had an excellent view, though, of the explosions. The bastards did get one shot off and I heard it hit the hull. A warning klaxon came on and I yelled, “How bad are we hit?”
Morris immediately answered, “Only minor outer hull. Sealed off now, no vital electronics damaged.”
On the other hand, we got the Paradise Lost in several locations, including the life system. That was pretty obvious because both Embry and Jackson began to scream as their breathing air began to blow out into vacuum.
They looked at each other, as they tried to hang on, both yelling, “No, my love, no!” then they were gone, like leaves in a high wind. I was never happier to see the last of them.
I told Morris to turn off the alarm and to give me an outside view. He zoomed in on our opponent's vehicle. It glowed red-hot in five places. Suddenly, the screen whited out then filled with static. The words “camera burned-out” showed instead.
“Why did it explode?” I asked Morris. “I could've used some of their food.”
Morris replied, “I assumed you wanted the most damage done to their ship. I had targeted their fusion engine and I assume it went super-critical. Sorry about the food; however, I think you'll be happy to know that I was able, during our brief conversation with those maniacs, to download all their computer's data. Their firewall was no match for me!”
I was really curious, now. I asked him, “How does this data help us?”
“I've been able to extrapolate from it how to get back to Earth. This 'tram-line' that they were talking about only goes back to the Solar System. There may be others but I imagine you are only worried about that one. They have on record the X, Y and Z coordinates. All I would have to do is orbit the system until we have built up an high enough velocity to reenter it. There is quite a bit of normal small matter in orbit plus I have detected some “dark” matter, also. I have calculated it will take less than three months ship time.”
“Great!” I shouted, doing the best I could to sound delighted. But deep down inside of me, was the germ of a very dark plan. I was glad it would take time because I would require that to do some reading. I suggested nonchalantly that we would use the same schedule as we had during the trip out. Morris agreed readily. Intelligent as he was and no matter what resources he had, I had tricked him.
So we began the tedious task of regaining our high velocity. However, time passed quickly for me, as I was on a quest and I have a lot of books to read: mostly ship's maintenance but, also, some scientific texts, too. I don't mean actual books with pages. I read everything on the screen, hoping against hope that Morris wasn't paying attention and get suspicious. But as usual, he was too busy scanning, making observations, checking to make sure everything was working properly, and keeping an eye on my health. I even suggested to him to boost acceleration to 1.5 gs; I told him I think I could stand it and that, if he found I couldn't, he could go back to 1. I noticed the extra weight but I gained muscle mass so I decided that was a good thing.
I found out during my studies that there was a backup computer on board. It was nowhere near as powerful as Morris but it would do everything I needed. The main component of importance was its excellent autopilot and visual displays. Morris noticed that I was working with it and asked me why. I told him I was just keeping busy. That seemed to satisfy him.
As time went by, I chafed at my existence. The food was beginning to taste quite bad and I didn't even trust the water. But I kept up my resolve and continued to work on my plan.
I believe I went insane. I think the main symptoms were my paranoia and the single-mindedness of my vengeance. I did my best to hide it from Morris. He never commented that I was behaving strangely; apparently, psychiatry wasn't part of his programming.
The time was approaching where we would be able to reenter the warp. On the backup computer I had several secret files of programming and instructions. I was quite sure Morris had no idea. Looking back, I'm sure he would've tried to stop if he could.
Finally, the day came and I climbed into the command chair. I have a plastic bag in my hand in case I got nauseated again. We reached the coordinates, our velocity was fierce and I had Morris turn the VPC onto maximum. We vanished from normal space, again.
I also had the backup computer build a drone to carry all the data and my recordings. I did this in a small construction module on the bottom of the ship. I sweated through this as I thought this was something Morris would notice. He never commented on that, either.
We were approximately halfway back to the Solar System, according to the previous travel time, so I had one very important thing to do. I knew Morris would resist doing what I had painstakingly put together. A battle of wills just before we reached home was something I wanted to avoid.
So, one day, I killed Morris.
Believe me, I had done a lot of soul-searching over the months. I had decided, delusional or not, that Morris was a block in my path.
One day, I went down one deck, opened a few panels, and put control of the ship on the backup computer. Morris immediately noticed this and demanded to know what I was doing. I told him I was just making sure the backup was working. I then went back upstairs and entered the crawlspace that took me to where Morris physically was.
Morris was a solid cube of metal with a control panel attached. I had been trained on how to use it in case he was to slip a gear. There was a section that controlled his biological needs. After looking at it, considering, I decided to turn off the oxygen feed.
On our personal comm, he said flatly, “You are killing me. Why?”
I replied in a normal tone of voice as if we were just talking about a normal day's event: “Morris, you've been a good friend. But, I think my brain is broken and it can't be fixed. I want to strike back at Earth and I know you won't want me to do that. So the only thing I could think of was to get you permanently turned off. Just think of it as going to sleep. Goodbye, Morris...”
I set the feed display to 0%. He tried begging after a few seconds, then his voice became incoherent and finally, there was a pop followed by static.
Did I tie one on that night! One thing was for sure, I still trusted the alcohol. I drank many toasts in memory of him and at the same time tried to render myself completely oblivious to what I had done. I've passed out around 0300, ship's time.
When I woke up, I had terrible hangover. There was a bit of guilt there, too, but I knew I had reached the point of no return. So ignoring the aches and pains, I went about with my preparations. My computer informed me I had one ship's day before we would come back into normal space. Mostly, I finished my work with the drone. I had input all the data of our trip plus any recordings I had made up to that point. Next I went computer and told it to launch the drone as soon as we entered the Solar System. I wanted it on a very eccentric orbit around the Sun; I thought, Who knows? Someday it may even reach Earth! Or what was left of it...
Because there won't be much time to talk or, at least, make any more recordings. So I'm going to set my agenda down in this last one:
The autopilot has been set to pick up the maser messages from Earth that will probably come when they notice me. I think I will be relatively easy to spot even from far away, mainly because of the bow shock preceding me will be blasting out all types of radiation. My maser message is going to be me telling everyone on Earth that a spaceship moving at nearly light speed was soon going to strike their planet. I explain the possibilities: if I hit solid ground, the energies released will probably cause an extinction event for the human race. If it was to hit water, which was very likely, some would survive and wish they hadn't because they would be knocked back into the Middle Ages way of life. I pointed out the fact that I would be solving their population problem. I told them my life had been one of pain and that I had been tricked into going on what was basically a suicide mission and the fault for that lay directly in the laps of the Canadian and United States governments. I finished by telling them that there was nothing they could do about it. The maser blast would blanket all TV and radio transmissions on Earth.
I had the computer prepare to broadcast that as soon as we entered normal space and to keep broadcasting it in as many languages as possible until the end.
I finished with the drone. It had a small engine (a one-shot fusion pulse) which would give it enough kick to get it away from my ship's influence.
So now I wait. For a time, I was a little bit worried that Earth might have some defences to stop me but, with all the radiation I was preceded by, any missiles or mines would have their electronics fried as if they had encountered an EMP.
Things will happen pretty fast when I come out of subspace. The trip to Earth won't seem too long for me due to time-dilation. I'm just going to relax and wait because, in the end, I know I won't feel a thing. I imagine they'll try to badger me from Earth but I'll just ignore them.
Well, like I said, I don't know if anyone will ever hear all of my transcriptions but there's something else I want to tell you, my unknown Listener: after I have finished with my threat, I added something from my youth. It was what I had said to Branigan when I entered homeroom the first day of Grade 10. Remember I said I had thrown a guy through a second storey window? Branigan was the one who all the way through Grade 9 had picked on me for being a “fucked up mutie” and had even beat me up once or twice. I walked in that day after working on the farm of an uncle for the summer, my right arm one long muscle. I grabbed him by the throat, crushed his throat some and threw him through the glass.
What I said to him, as I looked at him laying injured on the ground, is exactly how I will word my last maser message: “Payback's a bitch, ain't it!”
Oops! Gotta go...showtime!
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|Reviewed by Heather Walsh
|Interesting premise. Story in first person encouraged identification with the narrator. Ending was rather bleak, not what I expected. I guess that is what a story should do, so successful at that.|