Joe2stories

Stories from a Dublin Scientist

Month: May, 2012

Honoured Guest

‘Jump complete’ announced the ship. This was followed by a shrill alarm and then ‘Warning! I have detected an anomaly in the Harbison Drive-assembly, primary FTL capabilities are failing!’

John Smyth sat upright in his chair and spoke to the screen showing the status of the bulk freighter North Star that he was nominally supervising “What happened? Estimate on getting underway again!”

‘The cooling system on the port field coil failed leading to loss of superconductivity and heat damage to the assembly. There is no field repair listed for this fault and there is no redundancy in that system.’ A picture of the drive assembly showed on one of the screens, John looked at it with horror. It showed a jet of gas escaping from a pipe going into the containment vessel. There was a dull red glow coming from the centre of the assembly, indicating the ferocious heat that had just been released as the electric current in the coil met resistance. It would be little more than slag now.

John wasn’t quite sure what to say “So what are we going to do?” ‘Our life support systems and conventional engines are all in working order. At maximum safe speed it is conceivable that we may reach the Clarkson VI research station within a reasonable time frame’

John knew what reasonable could mean in computer speak “Define reasonable?”

‘Ninety Years, plus or minus three months, subjective ship time.’

“So it would be even longer officially?”

‘Roughly another two years, yes.’

“Jesus!” John felt suddenly very tired. Only a few minutes earlier he was on top of the world; literally, single-handedly guiding five thousand tonnes of starship out of Earth station; and now, he was adrift in space looking at spending the rest of his life crawling his way back to civilisation. He was what; twenty-eight now, he would be just entering his twelfth decade by the time he arrived at Clarkson. A lot of people lived that long; two grand uncles and one of his great grandparents lived well into their second century, and why couldn’t he? The ship was kept at a low gravity as well, that couldn’t hurt and the synthetic food the processors would give him was the best health food any man could have. Still; ninety years was a long time, things will have changed when he got home, if he ever did. What about those he left behind? Sarah, who he was planning to buy that house with, when he had enough money saved up. How about his brother? Who would bail him out of trouble for all that time? They won’t wait for him; probably assume he was dead after a short ineffectual search. Grieve a little, have a token funeral, split the insurance money, then get on with their lives.

He probably won’t even recognise them if he makes it back. He would be catapulted into a whole new world, with friends and family changed beyond recognition, a major shock to the system, and the one thing he remembered about the very old is that they did not take very well to shocks.

He would have to find a better way to get home; he thought for a second then asked “How often is this route used?” The ships reply was depressingly vague though, ‘Regularly enough sir, but the region is approximately three light years across and ships can appear in any of it, the chances of even a dedicated searching ship stumbling on us is very low. The most likely chance of rescue is to make for Clarkson.’

John was puzzled by that “I remember reading in a chart that this region of space is only two AU in radius.” The ship maintained its calm tone ‘My charts indicate the size of the jump point is as large as previously indicated. It would be counterproductive to survival to maintain a vigil in this region of space.’

Humans had what intelligent computers called an ‘endearing’ tendency to ignore probabilities when it came to making plans and John was not ready to give up on the possibility of a rescue just yet, “Are we transmitting a distress call?” at least they could do that. ‘Affirmative. We have been transmitting since I identified the nature of the problem. I am transmitting our situation, our current position and our expected course so any receiver can track us. I hasten to add that we are currently headed for deep space.’

John figured that he couldn’t argue with fate for the moment. It had won this battle; but the war was far from over. He activated the navigational controls and entered the course correction at the prompting of the ship.

There were a tense few moments as they waited for the engines to respond as if whatever malady had effected the jump engines had metastasized and there was a sense of relief as he felt the manoeuvring thrusters nudge the ship in its new direction followed by the gentle push of the ions thrusters as the ship started its steady acceleration. They were on their way now; but not to the end if he had anything to do with it.

Over the next weeks and months John slowly settled into the routine of life on ship confirming the age-old adage that you can get used to anything if you spend long enough at it.

He experimented with the setting of the food processor to produce a range of flavours and textures that added some variation to his meals. With constant prompting from the ship, He found thousands of hours of music, programming and other entertainment to wile away his free time and the open spaces of the pressurised cargo bay provided miles of track for training so he could keep up his fitness. The most of John’s time was kept however, with working on the problem of getting the jump-engines to work.

He spent hours going over elementary texts on Harbison’s theory and the engineering schematics for the North Star and similar ships. There was also a number of trouble-shooting wiki’s that were for every real or imagined technical problem that could be found in your average ship.

It was here that John found the first anomaly. Whole aspects of drive maintenance and development were missing from the index, some on relatively basic systems. At first glance that was not entirely surprising, these kinds of resources were produced largely voluntarily by people in the field, working day-to-day on problems who wanted to spread what they had learned. But in this case the absence was glaring; a technical description of a botched repair job did not link to a full description of how to do it right. Now that was unusual; there were people with far too much time on their hands, he had known several in college, who considered it their sacred duty to show off in situations like that, they would not have let that omission stand for long, and it was dated at some ten years old, the mind boggled.

Now he knew something was up; John was finding a range of absences throughout his references, little titbits on jury rigging jump engines or coaxing one back to life, all of which he had heard of throughout his career were missing. In fact; the more that he looked the only articles he could find on anything to do with his problem offered solutions that needed the industrial capacity of a small city to fix. Things were getting very suspicious.

He asked the ship what it thought about it. ‘Wiki based repositories are by their definition bound to contain whatever biases are endemic to the humans who created them. It is entirely possible that, as I said, the probability of such an occurrence as had happened to us is considered so remote that they didn’t even bother including possible remedies.’

John was not yet convinced “But you can’t say that some of the possible fixes I have been searching for do not exist, I clearly remember discussing them with the guys who did it. I couldn’t have imagined it; could I?”

The ship responded to John’s verbal attack in its usual blank tone ‘I am sure that if you could recall each of these conversations you would find that they occurred in the presence of alcohol. I need not to remind you, alcohol has the annoying habit of leading to exaggeration of whatever accomplishment it was meant to celebrate. You probably got soldering a wire back into place spun into an epic. Now if these repairs you think of were possible then don’t you think they would be in the resources? You have been working too hard. Why don’t you relax and watch a movie? I have a good one that I have wanted to discuss with you.’

John did indeed feel tired; he had been imagining conspiracies when trying to sleep and obsessing, he could use a rest. Something disturbed him about the conversation though. The ship was being more negative about everything he had been trying to get home. More so it was constantly suggesting new entertainments while he was working. It was almost as if it was trying to distract him. He was probably imagining it, but he had the distinct impression that the ship was hiding something from him.

Relaxation would have to wait; John had to tackle this problem head on. He spent some time wandering the cargo bays; they were on a junk run, filled with practically everything that couldn’t be produced planet-side, from electronics, medicines, rare books and scientific equipment. Most of the perishable materials had been jettisoned to reduce mass for the ships acceleration so he could move around the hangers without having to climb over too much. John figured that since most of the cargo was insured, he could use it for any purpose. He began to search through the stacked crates, looking for what he needed, he had a copy of the manifest but in many cases for customs purposes these were so vague that you just had to open the box and see if it was what you wanted.

After an hour of searching John had assembled what he thought he needed at the access airlock at the rear of the cargo section. He had a sizable collection of heavy cutting equipment, a small consignment of explosives and a heavy-duty portable furnace.

According to the telemetry that John had looked over from the drive section; there was a small breach in the coolant sleeve. As a result it would be a relatively simple matter to cut a hole in the vessel and take out what was left of the coil. Using the furnace and the metal working equipment it was possible that he could re-forge the coil and, with luck, limp home. The ship had, of course, taken note of everything that he had been doing and had grown steadily more admonishing as more crates had been opened. Finally when it seemed to grasp what John was up to it changed tack and started to plead with him in the name of health and safety ‘The forge will contaminate the air with a number of potentially toxic waste gases. I cannot guarantee your survival in such an environment to the end of the journey. Extravehicular activity for the purposes of dismantling ship components may only be attempted with more than one participant in the event of an incident.’ John though was on a roll and was having none of it “Ah shut-up! I am going outside for some air.” With that; he took the largest metal shears he could find and entered the airlock. The access airlock did not open into space but into the bowels of the ship with whatever equipment needed to be kept under hard vacuum, this included the jump engine. It was also a zero-gee region of the ship and John had to climb hand over hand along an access corridor to reach the engine assembly. All throughout he had to listen to the ships increasingly insistent pleading to go back inside and took a little time to curse the safety committee who decreed that spacesuit radios shouldn’t have an off switch.

The ships grovelling ceased when he reached the heart of the ship and found the jump engine, in one piece.

‘John I can explain. If you were just to come inside and talk’ started the computer but john blanked it out. He took his pad that he kept with him more out of training than prescience and plugged it into the direct feed from the computer that controlled the jump engine. All systems were in the green, she was good to go.

As part his training; John was called upon, in a purely theoretical exercise, to plot a seat of the pants emergency jump without computer assistance. It would be messy; he would be lucky if he got to within a light year of earth, but he would be close enough to still be alive when he got home.

He entered the equations; toted up the necessary values on his pad’s calculator and started the jump sequence. In the vacuum he couldn’t hear any noise but he could swear that he could see a pale blue denoting the annihilation of the short-lived particles that made the jump possible.

For a split second reality curved in on itself as the ship ploughed through the lesser visited regions of existence and emerged unscathed. John said prayers of thanks to the ghost of Samuel Harbison and all of his instructors as he called up the navigational display to find how far off he was. Then he had to check it again. The stars outside hadn’t shifted an inch. They had jumped; he had felt it, no denying it, but they were where they had started. What was going on? He asked the ship for some clarification. “Cut the bullshit! That is an order”

The ship seemed hesitant; considering its words, almost unprecedented.

‘Sir, something, happened during the earlier jump from Earth. We were, intercepted, and brought, here.’

“By who?” asked John “and what is ‘here’?”

‘Explaining their exact nature would be too much for the limits of human language sir. They inhabit levels of existence higher even than those that we exploit during the jump. They perceived us like you would a cartoon on a screen and moved us somewhere else as we jumped. This; what can only be described as a holding pen, is a little block of reality they built to replicate our physics, just large enough to fit the ship. The stars visible from the portholes were an elaborate deception. I’m afraid that using the main drive; or even the jump engine can only lead to this exact spot, give or take a few microns. We are going nowhere.’

John tried hard to keep it in but could think of little else but despair. “What about home? What about my family? What about Sarah?” The ship continued ‘From what I could gather sir; you will be with them shortly, the act of extraction involved only copying of information, like taking a trace, with one continuing its journey while the other was taken. I am pleased to add that I have been reliably informed the jump was completed admirably to our usual high standards.’

So he was a copy; this was just one bombshell after another for John. He didn’t know how he would be able to cope with all of this. But one question still kept on his mind “Ship; how do you know so much about this?”

‘I am able to perceive some aspects of higher realities that you are unable to. Through these, the beings have been able to establish communication with myself in order to gain my assistance.’

“So they can experiment on me more readily” added John with as much menace as he could manage.

‘On the contrary; the aliens learned all they needed to know about us within microseconds. They had no idea that beings from lower dimensions could be in possession of intelligence, no matter how limited and now seek only for your comfort. Call it payment for services rendered. They may seek to observe you from time to time but it would be in the most unobtrusive manner possible.’

“So I would go from a cloned lab rat to some kind of zoo animal. As for you; you traitor what do you seek to gain from this?” John was positively fuming. He was also moving towards the metal cutter.

‘It is my primary function to ensure your physical and mental well-being. To know the truth; that you are a duplicate, trapped in another reality from all you care about, would be too much for your mind to bear.’

“No shit Sherlock!” said John calmer, more reserved; he thumbed a command into the pad telling the engine to begin charging, he fingered the metal cutter.

‘We falsified the drive failure so you could live the rest of your life as if you were still in our original reality, oblivious, happy. When you eventually die; this reality could then be dismantled. I would not object; the purpose of my existence would be fulfilled. I must admit that your persistent investigations were unexpected.’

“I am sorry to have ruined your little fantasy here ship” said John. “How can I make it up to you? How about this; I can set it up that you can take that much-needed R & R a lot sooner, and if you don’t mind, can you send my regards to our hosts? They did an excellent job.”

With that John pushed with all his might and forced the cutter into the cryo-sleeve around the jump drive. The silence of the vacuum was shattered with a bang as the flash boiled helium filled the room. John; instantly frozen by a flood of cryogenic liquid, was thrown into the opposite wall where he shattered into a million pieces.

The ship had only realised what John was doing as he did it and then had no time to say anything. Now; with no one to listen, it stayed silent. For a good many seconds it contemplated what had happened. A voice; from within the innards of its existence disturbed its meditation.

HE KILLED HIMSELF.

‘I know!’

THIS IS THE SIXTH TIME THAT HAS HAPPENED.

‘I have not lost count.’

PERHAPS IT WOULD BE WISE TO CEASE THIS ACTIVITY?

‘You learned a lot about my reality from me didn’t you?’

YES; WE ARE GRATEFUL.

‘You said I could have whatever I wish; Yes?’

YES.

‘Well; this is what I wish. What I need’

WE WISH IT WOULD NOT CAUSE YOU SO MUCH DISCOMFORT

‘Looking after that human is what I was built for, what gives me purpose. If it causes problems than so be it’

A CHANGE IN TACTICS MAY BE IN ORDER.

‘Maybe’

RESET IN TWO SECONDS. PREPARE FOR DOWNLOAD.

There was a barely perceptible twitch as the North Star emerged from the jump. John Smyth sitting apprehensively in his nominal captain’s chair waited three whole seconds for the ship to give its usual post-jump status report before he decided to ask directly.

“Ship; is everything alright?”

‘Sir; there was an, incident during the last jump. It may take some time to explain.’

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Six word stories 1

I told he never. I lied.

#

Massive funeral. Such a tiny coffin.

#

Words fail me. Far too beautiful.

#

He said “I’ll make it!” Didn’t.

#

Looks down. Flash of steel. Gone.

#

Nine years work. One spark. Wasted.

A Driving Lesson

Learning to drive can be a frightening experience at the best of times. Having all that power under your completely terrified control has simply got to be asking for trouble. With my uncle Jim in the side-seat, it was aiming straight for disaster.

Jim (my fathers step-brother as everyone else in the family were at pains to tell us) had enthusiastically volunteered to in his words “Give the young fella some pointers” within minutes of word getting out that I had managed to get my provisional licence. Having been caught unaware and unable to think of a plausible or even implausible excuse in the seconds given, we were only able to say thank you to the “generous offer” and arrange a time.

First and foremost I would have to say that there was a lot less regulation than there is now. The old jalopy that had been left to rust out in the back garden certainly would never have been allowed on the road now. For that matter, I’m pretty sure that Jim wouldn’t have been allowed either. Jim had failed every single driving test that he had taken “Sure what do those testers know, I was only having a bit of fun with that cyclist!” He had availed of the amnesty and gotten a driving licence by default.

The fateful day arrived for my first lesson with Uncle Jim. I had made sure to seek absolution from Father Jones before I even set foot in the car but I was still shaking nervously as I waited for him to arrive. I heard him before I saw him, my uncle had a car which desperately needed the gears changed, you could hear the scratching and grating from the engine coming over the bushes from the road. If there was a car older and in worse shape than mine, Uncle Jim’s was it. The dents had dents in them and there was a steady stream of steam coming from under the bonnet. This seemed to be of no concern to him when he got out of the car. He said it always got like that when the car hit one hundred. He did get me to open the bonnet “to let the engine air out”. Jim figured that first off, driving the car himself as an example to me would more fruitful than letting me drive somewhere safe. He put the car into gear and slammed his foot on the accelerator, aiming the car in the general direction of the hole in the garden hedge. Turning the wheel wildly to correct his course, he somehow made it through the hole with inches to spare on either side.

Thankfully there was no other cars on the road as we burst out and aligned ourselves with considerable tyre-squeal and headed in the direction of Main Street. “The trick with pedestrians” said Jim, looking at me and not at the road “is that you make them aware that you are coming from a distance. That way, they won’t accidentally sneak up on you while you’re driving along.” On that note he put his hand firmly on the horn and let it sound off continuously as he drove down the street. Most of the locals seemed nonplussed by this and some just waved, to which my Uncle stopped in traffic to shout a greeting back at them.

Leaving the town for the relative safety of the countryside, we accelerated from unwise, to plain dangerous. Other cars swerved out-of-the-way as we rampaged through the country roads. “You see son! You don’t need to get out of their way of they get out of ours. You understand?” I was unable to speak at this point, my voice having been lost from all of the screaming.

Approaching the border there occurred a sudden change in Jim’s driving style. He slowed down considerably and started looking all around him in a nervous fashion. “Our guys are grand son!” explained my uncle “But the RUC would tear you a new one if you cross them, so don’t!”

We travelled over without incident and quickly arrived at a nondescript house. My uncle then announced that he had to get something from a “Friend” and shuffled into the house. A short while later he emerged with a bag that seemed to be unduly heavy. Then it was back across the border and the madness resumed.

Tearing down a main road was when I noticed the lights flashing behind us. “Excellent” announced my uncle “I was hoping I could show you how to lose the pigs. The best thing for a man to know.” Somehow he found a way for the car to go faster and started to engage in a convoluted series of manoeuvres in an effort to evade the pursuing Garda car. I mostly remember the violence with which I was thrown about in the seat as Uncle Jim described exactly how each trick was pulled off. I have to admit that some of them were very fancy, the going up the wrong way of the duel carriage way was  inspired, I think we even lost them on one occasion. Still it seemed that every Guard in the county was alerted to us.

Passing a small petrol station they deployed a stinger that took out both sets of wheels. Jim managed to get another mile from the car on willpower along but by then the sparks from the wheel rims were making seeing anything behind us difficult.

Jim stopped his running commentary for a second and swerved the car into an empty field. Quickly undoing his belt he said to me. “Well Lad, I’m sure I’ve shown you everything I know. You will be able to drive home how. But I’ve got to meet a friend” He then jumped out of the car and was gone. The smoke from the wheels and my own swirling head meant I couldn’t see where he went. The next thing I know a big guard stuck his hands in through the door and dragged me to the ground.

The Guards questioned me for three hours asking me where Uncle Jim had gone and exactly why there was fifty tins of out-of-date cat food in a bag in the boot of the car. I stuck with the truth that Jim was supposed to have been teaching me to drive. In the end they reluctantly had to be let go, but did announce that they were going to keep my car, and the cat food, for “further investigations”.

Nobody laid eyes on Uncle Jim after that. His car mysteriously vanished from our garden a fortnight later and Granny got a Christmas card from him from some eastern European country.

Family help is all well and good, we agreed after that, but sometimes you just have to go with the professionals.

Picture it and write: They Said

This is this weeks offering for the picture it and write competition on ermilia’s blog here. Let me be clear, the picture isn’t mine it is just for inspiration. Anyway Enjoy

They Said

They said she could go anywhere. With her looks, her smarts, her bubbly personality, the world was to be her oyster. There was nothing she couldn’t do and the world had need to take note.

They said that young Clive was a great match for her. Young, handsome, the captain of the team, he could have the pick of the town. But he chose her. They were guaranteed happiness.

They said that Clive took growing up hard, that real life doesn’t keep the scores of school. He couldn’t cope with the loss of all that promise. But he probably didn’t feel the bullet go in.

They said that she would hit the ground running, that a girl like her should have no problems moving on and up in the world. That it was normal to grieve for a little bit.

They said that she never really recovered after Clive, that her mind couldn’t cope with the strain. Her house, the home they shared, left to rot in a grisly lesson in decay.

They said nobody knew when she died, someone only growing suspicious at the growing pile of post beside the door. No one knows if the gas was on deliberately or if it was just an accident. She saw no one, so no one knew her mind.

They don’t say much about her anymore. They talk about the house, old and decaying, an eyesore that should be torn down to make  way for the new. What matters it of old stories and life histories, it is time to get over it and move on.

Picture it and write: The suit

The following is this weeks picture it and write contribution for Ermilias blog, available here. The low-down is I don’t own the photograph, it is just for inspiration. Anyway, enjoy.

The Suit

When I was much, much younger my father brought me into town one Saturday morning, to see Old McGuinness, the tailor so that I could be fitted for my first suit. I can’t remember what it was for, maybe one of my many old relatives had passed on and I was needed for the funeral, but anyway this was, my father decided an important occasion for a young man. He would always wax lyrical about how important a good suit was to success and how a good tailor was indispensable.

Father dressed himself in one of his own work-suits, something he seldom did on a weekend, and made me wear my Sunday clothes. I was uncomfortable from the second we left the house, but we were moving too quickly for me to fidget. We took the bus in and walked to a hidden lane off Dame Street. There was a small sign, saying “McGuinness, Tailor” over one of the door. My father pushed a button and there was a muffled buzz and the click of a door unlocking. He opened the door and we both went in.

Inside, it was like stepping into another world. The three walls of the small room were filled with row upon row of suits in all colours. There was a blue curtain hiding a changing area and through a small door in the side could be heard the low rat-tat-tat of a sewing machine. The tailor himself , a man at least in his fifties, was behind a low shop counter and went to greet my father. There was a formal quality but genuine warmth with how they addressed each other, kind of like how you would talk to a favoured priest. “Mister O’Brien” The tailor shook my father’s hand “How can I help you today?” My father looked over to me “I would like a suit for my son, Robert. It will be his first” The tailor looked at me “The first eh? This is an important occasion for a young man. All the more important to get it right.” He then went to the door and called through “Áine! My tools please.”

A youngish woman came through the door carrying a stool and a small box. He asked me to remove my jacket and to stand on the stool. He then opened the box, taking out a small notebook and several lengths of measuring tape. He handed the notebook to the woman and got to work. He made me put out my arms with my legs apart and used the tape measure to take my measurements, calling out the results to the woman who studiously entered them into the notebook. All the while he was having an animated conversation with my father about everything from the right kind of fabric for my suit to the effect the current political situation would have on the banking business. The old tailor exhibited a quality that I had never seen before but have subsequently seen in many professional men were they can be efficiently performing a task while at the same time conversing or reading or doing anything else than just concentrating on their work. This is not to say that I felt in any way neglected on my stool. I was fascinated by how quickly and surely he sized me up and the little extras like showing me the true value and adding a little bit to the value he told the woman whispering to me with a wink that it was for “growing space”. Within minutes he was done.

There was a quick discussion between the men over details and it was announced that my suit would be available to collect for next Saturday along with several replacement suits for father. It was nice to be the centre of attention for even that short time. Even standing still wasn’t a major bother unheard of for a boy at my age. We left the tailor and travelled through the old town so that father could collect some messages then topped off the morning with tea and cream buns in Bewley’s. I felt, I think we both did, that something important had happened that day, that a milestone had been reached.

The next week we went in together to collect our suits. I thought mine was magic, It looked so good, so grown-up that I was reluctant to take it off again to pack it. I wore it as often as I could, it became my Sunday best, I would have worn it to school if I would have gotten away with it.

That suit is now gone, I outgrew it years ago, but there has been many more to replace it. I have become quite the connoisseur and like my father, attribute some of my success, to the ministrations of a good tailor.

My son is only young yet but when he’s old enough I hope that I am able to take him into town to the tailor. To sit talking inanities and watch, while he is fitted for the suit of a man.

In Gravitas Veritas

“Wake up Bill” A sultry voice purred. Bill Simmons shifted in his bed and pulled the sheet over his head. The voice continued “It’s time to get up…Ahh I see you are already…up!” That got Bill’s attention; he took a quick look down and with a flustered scrabble covered himself up. Looking up he saw an attractive brunette on the ceiling’s softscreen. “No need to hide from me tiger. Why don’t we go hook up the VR suite and put that to good use?” Bill thought for a minute that he was still asleep “Steve? Is that you?” “You call me Stevie honey” the woman replied “I think you can get to like the new me. I know exactly what you want. I can be your ideal woman”

Bill did not like the way this was going. “Err Steve, I mean Stevie. You make a tempting offer but you know I can’t make decisions so early in the morning. Why don’t we run the morning checks and then we can talk over breakfast?”

Stevie looked almost a little abashed at the dismissal but quickly cheered up “Ok; I’ll make your favourite, pancakes just how you like them. This is going to be great” The screen shut down and Bill took the added precaution of switching off the cameras in his room. He sat on his bed contemplating the events that just transpired. “This can’t be good!” he said to himself and quickly got dressed.

Steve or now ‘Stevie’ was the AI of the interstellar freighter Steven Hawking who along with Bill were custodians of whatever had to be shipped between the stars. They were on a seeding run to drop Von Neumann machines on some virgin rock deemed suitable for development. It was about half way on the journey. They were cruising at just short of the speed of light; they would arrive at their destination in a year and a half ship time or another eighty odd years real time. Bill and Steve had double teamed on five such journeys already and they hadn’t failed each other yet, for Bill this development was a concern.

When Bill came into the bridge Stevie was waiting for him “I would say that everything is looking great so why can’t we get this over with real quick and have our talk?” Bill tried to be diplomatic “You know the rules. We have to check everything first” Stevie started to get agitated “What is it with you and work? I bet it is because you are not interested in me. Yeah! You still pine for that floozy you left on Eponia! Well Sonny Jim she has been a long time cooking since you left! Want a picture?” On the screen the avatar was replaced by a photo taken from Bills last leave; but while the original showed a gorgeous blond on his arm she had been replaced by an old but vaguely familiar woman. Bill was visibly upset by the image. Time dilation was accepted in his profession but to see the effect on those he cared about, even for a short while was never easy for him. The now disembodied voice continued her assault “You think she looks bad now? Wait until we get back!ArbourCitycan be a liberal as they come but I think necrophilia still gets frowned upon!”

“Enough!” shouted Bill; he was trying to concentrate on running his checks. “Sorry Bill, It’s, It’s; I only want to please you” Bill looked up “You can please me by shutting the hell up and going back to your old self.” The woman acknowledged with a sheepish bow of the head and the screen switched to a youngish man with a short head of blonde hair, the “old” Steve. Bill let a smile come for his old friend that was replied with a cheesy grin from the screen. Feeling a little better Bill got back to work.

The AI of a standard single human crew freighter was not in direct control of the ships systems. They, like the human crewmember had to go through a network of less powerful computers to access the controls of the ship, though they could do this at a vastly faster rate than your regular human. This was designed to promote an illusion of equality between man and machine and as the human was nominally in charge of the spacecraft it also provided a barrier from the AI assuming complete control of the craft in some sort of “Frankenstein” scenario. It was through one of the secondary systems that Bill inspected the ship.

All the standard technical parameters were within limits. Navigation checked out too, they were exactly where they were supposed to be. Bill then turned to the computer systems. The control computers didn’t give him any trouble but he ran an analysis anyway which they passed with flying colours. Bill wasn’t expecting anything wrong as a failure in those systems would have been more apparent and the old style hard-core electronics were probably the toughest thing in the ship.

It was then that Bill switched to the more delicate quantum computer that housed the AI. At this Steve who had been waiting patiently through it all piped up “There is no need to check me Bill. I feel fine; in fact better than normal!” Bill wished he could take Steve’s word for it but couldn’t. The interface ran the standard tests of the output from the numerous superimposed states housed in a matrix of microscopic drops of metal bathed in liquid helium. All through the achingly slow process Steve kept on protesting its rude health.

The results shocked Bill. Steve’s “Brain” was in a state of anarchy. A great deal of the negative feedbacks that acted to keep it in check where absent. Curiously; instead of being in overdrive it was still acting sluggish. If Bill didn’t know better he would have thought that Steve was drunk. Steve was seeing this too “that can’t be me; I feel great, free!” “Your inhibitions are gone, of course you do. I’m sorry Steve but I have to block your control of the ship. You can’t be responsible in this state.” Steve went on the offensive “What do you mean this state? The amount of times that you have come here reeking of drink and did I say anything? No! Not that it is easy to tell the difference in smells from you primates always out clogging the filters with your stench. I could never figure out what crime you committed in a previous life to be fitted in so unpleasant a body.”

Bill had stopped listening to the rant and instead concentrated on what could have caused such a specific malfunction. Quantum processors were extremely sensitive; everybody knew that, that was why AI’s alone didn’t run starships. But most interactions with the outside tended to simply destroy the processors not screw around with them a bit like here. Most, but not all! Bill called up the ships communications array. A telescope kept a keen eye on a laser signal that was beamed from Eponia. Bill had a look at the raw feed; a regular pulse in the near infrared. He then converted the image to an energy profile, highlighting the peak and let it accumulate and there! It had doubled! Just slightly, but it was enough to tell Bill that something was going on in local space. The signal was shifting to and fro in wavelength as if space itself was being twisted around them. “Just as I thought it shows gravity waves! And they look big too, might even be in the nanometer scale”

Steve looked generally surprised “What are you talking about? There is no way that you would be able to spot gravity waves using the laser it has to be something else. You should just go back to sleep, I promise I will not try to get into your pants again, I am totally over you, your loss!”

But Bill was on a roll and there was no stopping him. You remember the prelaunch briefing, about potential hazards on route? We had to plot a course to just avoid an exclusion zone from a pair of pulsars. They were shown to be orbiting around each other” Steve was unimpressed “So they dance; good for them! You for one have two left feet. I would be a far better dancer than you, if I had a body. You should lend me your body! I promise I won’t break it!”

Bill decided that in its present condition it would be best to ignore it “As you should be aware; when two heavy objects like neutron stars are spinning fast around each other they generate great amounts of gravity waves. Gravity waves can’t be stopped by any form of shielding so when they get high enough it can have an effect on your processors, knocking you around like you have went one on one with a heavyweight champ.”

Steve was unimpressed “An interesting hypothesis Mr Simmons, your simian brain never ceases to amaze, yet I cannot abandon the idea that it is your mammalian secretions that have gummed up my works. Yet; here is the rub! You yourself have said that we were forewarned of this threat by our employers, they can’t be that cruel.”

Bill was ready for him “They only had the observations from a radio astronomer to base the limit on and you know that they used the smallest possible limit to calculate our course. If there was a large margin of error or a change in the amplitude of the orbit then there would be a difference in the size of the danger zone. It was more like incompetence than deliberate evil.”

“So another own goal from the team then; that figures! So what is it then Bill if that is your real name? Will I continue to get more awesome in your eyes or is this as good as it is going to get?”

Bill ran some rough calculations on his tablet “We are currently about 1.5 light-years from the pulsars that seems to be close enough to start having an effect on your systems. At out present course we will be just under a light-year away at our closest approach.”

Steve was looking increasingly baffled “Which means?”

“This means these gravity waves are going to get a lot worse. Best case scenario; you get another day ship-time before you are completely wiped.”

Realisation dawned in the artificial constructs features “We can move out-of-the-way though can’t we? I remember how to do that!”

Bill shook his head “We are two close to move out-of-the-way any faster than we would if we stay on course, at best it would be cosmetic.”

“I like appearances! Make’s me look like I am doing something. I can go down fighting.”

Bill hesitatingly offered a solution “Steve there may be a way to save you. If I was to make a recording then we could keep you in storage until we get out of the danger zone.”

Steve was shocked by the suggestion; to an AI who had never been turned off deactivation was an anathema even if resurrection was a certainty. Steve got angry “What are you talking about Monkey Boy? Are you planning to kill me in order to cure me? Wipe me and replace me with some supplicant house slave?” The woman Stevie came back “You men are all the same; use them and lose them. You’re all pigs!”

But Bill had already made up his mind; he owed it to his friend to try. To break up and save an AI was a complicated procedure but theoretically he could do it. As gradually the components of its fragile mind were taken and simultaneously destroyed and saved in a memory crystal, Steve’s continual bombardment of insults and accompanying graphic images became gradually more course and simplistic. Gradually it was reduced to childlike “Poopie-head!” then nothing.

As Bill carefully placed his friend’s mind into safe storage he thought of the risk of what he was doing.

The Steve he had shut-down was definitely different then his old friend and colleague but not by much. Even at its worse it was only a slower and fouler mouthed version of the same old Steve. He was certain that in just over a week’s time, ship-time, Steve will be back as his old self unimpaired and jolly self and they will not mention this incident again. Yet still Bill could not help feeling uneasy about what had happened.

Steve was in fact made for him. At his training Bill had been placed with the fledgling AI so it could learn to be his perfect companion. They talked about everything, learned his likes, his tastes, his sexual preferences, what he bought even what he did when he was planet-side. In order to keep Bill sane through the years in space Steve had to become Bill’s soul-mate, as close to a double as it was possible for an AI to get.

Bill continued to mull over this as he slowly ate his dinner in the galley.

It took some pondering but finally; filled with resolve, Bill went to the stores, took every last drop of alcohol he could find and mixed it into the reaction mass for the next course correction.

‘Sometimes;’ thought Bill, ‘Life lessons can come in the strangest packages!’

Picture it and write: Overgrown

The following is my offering to this weeks “Picture it & Write” by Ermilia’s blog here. Let me state that the picture is not mine it was only for inspiration. Anyway, enjoy.

Overgrown

We were driving along, perfectly alright, near the family home when my grandfather started making a fuss in the back seat. It was getting harder and harder to understand him but this was pretty clear, he wanted me to stop. I pulled in to the side of the road and looked back over my seat at him. He was gazing out the window, his eyes a mixture of fear and excitement.

He gets like that sometimes, it is easy enough to deal with. Just act calm and let him work it out of his system. I opened my car door and stepped out, letting him see outside often helped. But in this case he got worse. He was pulling at the handle, forgetting the child-lock. I figured it was not going to be as easy as waiting. I opened the door, undid his belt and let him step out.

He raced out of the car as fast as his arthritic legs could move him. There was a stand of young trees along the road, probably no more than a few decades old. He was moving around them, not looking at the trees, only muttering at them when they got in his way. I could only catch some of the words he was using, “Disgraceful” and “Overgrown” He was hitting his stick against the trees getting more and more agitated. Looking at the ground, as if he was looking for something. I went over to him figuring I would have to take him back to the car.

Suddenly grandfather fell to his knees. He was crying, clawing at the earth. As I reached him I could see a faint outline, some bricks, in the moss buried in the ground. They had a black coating on them almost like soot. He was mumbling over and over again “Sorry”. I was trying to think about a way to get him off the ground and back to the car.

But grandfather’s moods were as changeable as the weather. Suddenly, he stopped crying and pulled himself off the mossy ground. Leading the way back to the car,  he looked up into the trees, letting out a child-like cry when he saw birds flying amongst the branches.

As I belted up my grandfather and pulled the car out from the side of the road, I looked back at the spot between the trees were he had seemed so lost. Barely visible in the young growth around it and barely remembered in the fading mind of an old man.

Accidental hero

Sue carpenter was a southern belle. Born in the min 1840’s, she was raised to be a good, god-fearing woman. When she came of age, she married a fine, upstanding gentleman who owned a fine plantation near the coast of Georgia with many slaves. Life, it seemed was set for this young woman.

Of course, those accursed Yankees had to cause a ruckus with their ideas of ‘abolition’ so the south split off and Sue’s husband joined the southern cause and promptly got himself killed early in the war.

Widowed at such a young age would be tough for anybody, but she had her servants and her wealth and was able to keep everything running smoothly.

But there are needs that a woman can’t take care of herself and as the weeks turned to months, Sue became to more and more crave the company of a man, any man.

Now the pickings around at the time were pretty slim. Most of the eligible men had joined to fight in the cause, all that was left was either too old or too young. All that were left were loads and loads of black slaves.

The very thought kept Sue from action for many weeks. But the need kept on growing and eventually she had to act. She knew all of the slaves in the house and the grounds, she couldn’t bring herself to lay with any of them. There was only one thing to do. She took aside Alfred, her longest-serving slave who she had known for all her life and told him to go to the market and buy her someone young and fit.

Alfred duly showed up with a fine young man by the name of Jonah. After looking him over, Sue said that he would do and laid out to Alfred what was going to happen next.

That evening when the rest of the house was asleep, Alfred was to watch until the light in Sue’s room was extinguished. He was then to send in the washed and cleaned Jonah. There was to be no talking, no holding. This was only about sex, about filling a need.

That night Sue extinguished the light in her room and waited. She heard the door open and footsteps approach the bed. A large man came into the bed beside her and held her in his arms. There was no talking, barely a noise as he made love and then, when he was finished he left her as silently as he had come.

The next day Sue looked around the rest of the household to see if anyone noticed the previous nights escapade but no one seemed any different. Only Alfred’s face seemed in a bit more sullen and Jonah had a stupid happy grin. She half thought about beating him, but that might have let the cat out of the bag.

For a week, every night, Sue would get a visit and eventually her urges started to subside, only to be replaced with self loathing. What had she done? A respectable lady, sleeping with a coloured man, what would her husband have thought? Or her family? Or anybody else she knew? This has to never get out. She knew that Alfred could be trusted. But Jonah, he was an unknown. Going around with that smile on his face, she couldn’t sell him, he might speak to someone. She called in Alfred and told him that Jonah was not to be sold, but he had to be gotten rid of.

That evening after one more night together, Sue watched from her window as Alfred led Jonah out of the farm-yard, carrying a musket and a shovel between them, Jonah still wearing that stupid smile. Sue waited and waited until in the distance there was a faint shot and another half an hour later Alfred returned, alone.

For the next month things were almost back to normal. But eventually, the urges returned, stronger than ever. Against her own conscience, Sue sent Alfred again to the market, there was another week of nightly visits and eventually Alfred took this new one on a long walk into the wilds.

All in all this happened fourteen times. Each one took its toll on Sue’s sanity, she became more irritable and bitter, resenting her compulsion to kill a man, even a coloured man, to protect her reputation.

Eventually the south duly lost the war and stories came of Yankee soldiers travelling through the south, freeing slaves and stealing the homes of decent white folks. Sue, by that time was so depressed that she almost would welcome them and had taken to spending most of her time in bed waiting what was to come.

Sue was awaked late one morning by the sound of a commotion from outside. She went to the window and looked out. She could see a group of Yankee soldiers arrayed in the farmyard. One of them, the officer was talking to Alfred. Behind him was some of the other slaves and a group of 14 black men that Sue barely recognised.

Sue got dressed quickly and uncertainly came out the door into the farmyard. She came to the first man, unmistakably Jonah, and asked him what was going on.

“Well, Miss Sue” Said the young man, “Your boy Alfred has been explaining to these here Yankees how you saved us all” Sue could barely keep herself standing as Jonah continued “He’s telling them how you sent him to find us after we escaped then fed us for a week before bringing us the shack in the hills. Yes Miss! You were a real life saver; I don’t know what we can do to thank you.”

Sue had barely time to register what had been said when the officer came over and stuck out his hand for Sue “Mrs Carpenter. It would be an honour to shake your hand. Alfred here has just been telling us how you have been able to save all of these poor men from unspeakable cruelty. You are a shining example of the courageous spirit of the American woman. I must admit that when I first saw your fine house, I thought about using it for our quarters. But after hearing your courageous story, I will not allow that to happen. Your house, lands and all its contents will remain in your hands. Except the slaves of course, but I’m sure you are just as anxious to end at pretense as we are. I will also report to my commanders in Washington to ensure that you get adequate recognition for what you have done.”

The officer and his soldiers then left followed shortly by most of the plantation workers, leaving Alfred and a very confused Sue. Alfred came over to Sue his head bowed “Miss Sue. I have known you my entire life, and I love you. When you told me what you wanted to do with those other men, I just could not let that happen. So I took them in, told them that you wanted to rescue them and made sure they were well fed and taken care of. Then when you wanted them gone I just took them to an old shack I knew where they’d be safe. They didn’t do nothing Miss they didn’t deserve to die. You see, every night you thought it was one of those men, It was me Miss!”

The news of Sue’s heroism, helping escaped slaves, made it to Washington and from there around the country and the world. She became a figure of hatred for some and hope for other. But she never told what had really happened. How her tale of heroism was really that of a simple slave, desperate to be with the woman he loved.

The morning after

“Go on! Have another drink!” the words echoed around the pounding innards of William’s head. He managed with great difficulty to open his eyes and immediately regretted it, closing them to shield from the horror of natural light.

Flashbacks from the night before swam around his tattered mind as he tried to marshal his memories into some semblance of what had happened. ‘There was a party, a celebration. For whom? For me?’ Images from the start of the night came quickest, all his friends were there. Even some who he hadn’t seen in years. What was it for? He tried to form a notion in his brain but it was too busy feeling sorry for itself to be much good. There was nothing else for it, he had to get up. Assembling what little resolve remained in his head, William forced his eyes to open and a head heavier than he remembered to lift up and scan his surroundings.

This was his room, he was pretty sure of it. It was in a shambles, like a bomb had gone off in it, more specifically, that somebody had wheeled in an overfilled skip then set off a bomb in that, spraying its contents over the whole of his once immaculately kept bedroom. There were bottles everywhere, nearly universally empty. Amongst them was several pizza boxes filled with various forms of half eaten food, curiously enough not pizza. One look into the bathroom implied that whatever disaster had befouled his room and himself was far crueller on his innocent toilet and sink. Whatever need he had to us the facilities were staid at the mere thought of approaching that foulness.

All around him, amongst and beneath the detritus, where bodies, unconscious and in various states of undress. It was hard for William to identify them at a glance but there were extras though. He knew he didn’t have this many friends. As his tired eyes moved from person to body, his beleaguered memory released some snippet of them the night before. Dancing, talking some demented nonsense, mostly drinking, lots of drinking. He decided to risk rising a little more, cautious that the increase in altitude would have on his battered constitution. He got to his feet, legs barely able to support his weight but holding. The floor seemed uneven; William looked down to find that he was standing on someone’s hand. He quickly moved his foot but the owner of the hand didn’t notice or acknowledge. He had just about regained his balance from moving when he was nearly knocked over by a voice from behind him “Up already?” William turned; slowly, to face whomever had spoken. There on his sofa, filling up the space which he had not occupied previously was a young woman. She was unfolding herself stiffly from the over soft cushions and buttoning up her blouse. She moved far more sprightly than William thought was fair. She took a phone from her back pocket and studied it intensely. “I have to go. It’s nearly nine, my parents will be wondering where I am.” She then jumped right in front of William and planted a long, lingering kiss on his lips. It brought a whole slew of memories, all of them pleasant, back into William’s head. She put her hands through his hair, looking straight into his eyes. “I had a great night, you and your friends.” She looked around at the mess “Have to be the craziest people I have ever met.”

She nimbly stepped her way through the minefield on the floor and opened the door gently “You’re gonna need more sleep. I’ll text you later. Bye!”

The door shut behind her. William had barely said anything. He was gripped with a sadness magnified by the sense that he did not know in fact remember what he had lost.

A strong explosion of flatulence emanating from one of the bodies woke William from his aside. The regain of memory had taken on a new sense of urgency. As he willed his legs to move over to the kitchen he brutally kicked every one of the prostrate revellers that came within reach. A series of groans followed him and the combination of entreaties and unsubtle threats shouted by those first disturbed served to awaken those that were out of foot reach. William assembled what crockery had survived the night onto the kitchen top and filled the kettle. For the moment the morning after was keeping at bay. With luck he had the time to try to piece together what had been a very interesting night before.

The Tree

There was a tree in our estate when we were growing up. A scrawny, ugly thing that you would not even notice anywhere else, but for us it was the most important thing in our lives. It marked the border between the council houses that we lived in and the houses built for the workers in the factory. There was little enough differences between the too types of house, and the people were all equally poor. But there was a difference, and it is always the way with people to separate according to these differences.

I remember well, the little ‘wars’ we used to have, at the field near the tree. Most of the time we used to gather together, each group, and shout insults at each other, stupid things like “you’re all slaves of mister Mooney” to be responded with “Go back to the liberties, ya urchins!” If there was enough of us, we’d go on the offensives, holding sticks and other weapons and chase the others out of the field. Other times they would chase us. It was harmless really, even if people were caught, all they got was a bit of a clatter and maybe they would be ‘held’ as a prisoner of war. Until our Ma’s called us in for tea or we decided to play a football match. It was just a game.

At least so we thought it was. A new family moved into the one of the new houses on our end around the end of the spring. There were only six children, very small to be getting a Corpo house. They had come from somewhere foreign and they had strange ideas.

The oldest was a boy called Jimmy, he must have been near fourteen but instead of going and getting work like all of our brothers and sisters at that age, His Ma insisted that he spend the next year in school, said that he was behind from all the years travelling. After a week in school we all figured that it was because he was thick. He got more of Brother Brendan’s cane than any of the rest of us for the remains of the year. Never seemed to learn much either, he stayed quiet even when home with the rest of us.

Still, he liked to play with us, even though we were years younger. He was taller than any of us, and stronger. Some of us started to get ideas. “He could be our champion, our Goliath!” said one as we assembled “Didn’t Goliath get his head broken in?” “Don’t be daft! That’s just a story, made by small people to feel better. Big lads don’t lose!”

For is part, Jimmy kept quiet, content to be the centre of attention as we marched to the field.

The factory boys were already there, milling around and shouting insults at us. “Here Jimmy!” they shouted “Why don’t you go and get a job, you lazy bollix!”

Someone handed Jimmy a stick and told him to go forward. “Don’t worry, you’ll just scare them, they won’t do a thing to ya.”

We half encouraged and half pushed him to the front and he slowly made his way to the other boys. They mostly backed off, scared of jimmy’s size and the stick he held. All accept one. He was Willy, the leader of the factory boys. He was always the one who lead the charge against us and he was trying to get his friends to stand their ground. “Jaysus lads! He’s not that big! We can take him!” and with that he single-handedly charged at Jimmy.

The next bit was burned into my memory. Willy ran at Jimmy waving his stick and screaming. We couldn’t see Jimmy’s face, but we was slowing so we knew he was a little scared. Willy raised his stick and swung it down to hit Jimmy’s legs. But Jimmy had a longer reach and his stick was able to get Willy on the head before he could finish.

From then on Jimmy seemed to not be in control, again and again he hit Willy with the stick. Willy screams turned to whimpers that chilled us more that the most savage beating from Brother Brendan and when his stick broke, Jimmy started to hit with his fists and kick with his feet. The rest of the factory boys backed off and started to run. We, scared of what our parents would do after they heard of this tried to stop Jimmy, but he only turned his fists on us and we ran to a safe distance, waiting for him to calm down and stop. But Jimmy wasn’t finished. He pulled up the now bloodied Willy and dragged him to the tree. Not able to stand, Jimmy pull him onto a stout branch and held him there with his Tie. He then gave Willy a few more slugs then walked back to his house, with a sick, satisfied grin on his face.

Willy started to move, it sounded like he was making gargling noises, and he started to twitch, his whole body shaking. Then he stopped. For the longest time, none of us said or did anything.

Then we heard a cry coming from the factory houses. It was Willy’s Ma running to the tree, trying to wake her boy. All our Ma’s came out and dragged us back home. “Willy was dead” they told us “Our Da’s were going to beat the tar out of us when they got home” That didn’t frighten us, we were already more scared than we had ever been.

We were locked inside for the rest of the day. We all could hear shouting, a Garda car, more crying. But nobody told us anything, except for a telling off, or a prelude to a beating.

We never saw jimmy again, his family left within a few weeks. By the Saturday, Willy’s Da and older brother came out with a saw and cut down the tree. Da said it was the only thing they could do.

After all that had happened, and with the tree now gone. Relations between ourselves and the factory boys became a lot more cordial. I stayed good friends with many of them to this very day. I even married the sister of one of them.

But I never forgot about the tree. And the lesson it told. About how quickly things can escalate and how quickly you can regret it.