Science Fiction

The Crosslaws

The bus seemed to hand in mid-air. In front of it stood a skinny teenager, cowering, his arms crossed in front of his face. It was a frozen scene, both the bus and kid as unmoving as the zebra crossing on which he stood, and yet it was obviously a moment captured in time. As per the laws of universal cartoon convention, speed lines trailing the bus demonstrated the momentum with which it was bearing down on the unprotected youth.

From a shadow emerged the agent. Wrapped in his trademark fedora hat and trench coat, collar turned up despite the heat (of course), he strolled to stand between the bus and its target. Having adopted his current look in the post-war twenties he’d stubbornly refused to refresh his image with the changing time. It made him immediately obvious to those who knew what to look for. He was Albert Feynman – Physics Cop.

Removing his cigar with a sigh, he flicked ash onto the road and said to the air, “OK Thelodious, I know you’re out there.”

Nothing happened. Despite time being frozen, Albert thought he saw a shimmer from the heat haze rising off the searing bitumen. If that were true, he’d have to make sure he talked with the guys from the convection department to ensure that the molecules were restored to their original position after this was over. If a butterfly flapping its wings in the outback could theoretically cause a typhoon in the China Sea, there is no telling what rearranged molecules during a temporal freeze could do. Probably nothing, but you just never knew – that was the thing about Chaos Theory.

He folded his arms and said once again, “Come on Thelodious. You know this sort of thing isn’t on.”

Waiting what seemed like an eternity, Albert was about to try again when from behind the bus stepped a tall slender man. Strolling deliberately in his pin stripped suit, hair immaculately plastered in place, he tried to appear nonchalant as he presented himself before Albert.

“Ah … Thelodious Rouge Tapus”, said Albert, “of course it would be you.”

“Who else”, said Thelodious indicating the zebra crossing, “it is my job. This is an emergency freeze to forestall a legislative breach by the bus.”

“And it is my job to stop you when you overstep you jurisdiction”, countered Albert. “This is a gross breach of protocol, even for a Legislative Cop like you.”

“Not at all”, protested Thelodious, “Australian Law clearly states that vehicles must give way to pedestrians on zebra crossings.”

Albert gave him a withering stare. “And yet,” he continued dryly, “you are still outside of your jurisdiction by taking this action.”

Thelodious stood his ground and radiated unrepentant resolve. He was a legal man and rules must be kept, otherwise what was the point? This wasn’t his first confrontation with Albert and it wouldn’t be his last. He was damned if the bus was going to flout the law on his watch by failing to give way.

Albert continued, “May I refresh your memory about our little tussle decades ago in the States? It was about pi I believe.”

“Indeed it was,” said Thelodious wincing slightly but refusing to expand on the incident.

In the yawning silence that followed Albert plunged on, “And if I recall correctly, the State Legislature had passed a bill to set the value of pi at four. Four!? I mean come on, four! What on earth, even three would have been miles better.”

“Four was an excellent value administratively speaking,” Thelodious interjected. “Being an even number it simplifies so many calculations. Think of the savings to be made.”

“But it’s not correct.”

“That’s why we changed it.”

“You can’t, it’s a physical constant.”

“Really?” insinuated Thelodious his temper rising. “Because of all your meddling, we didn’t get a proper chance to see how things ran with a value of four. Now we’ll never know how well it would have worked”.

“Oh yes we do,” growled Albert under his breath.

The agents lapsed into silence as they re-gained their composure. Around them the scene remained fixed. A cicada hung mid-flight in the bushes to the side of the road. Only centimetres behind it, its recently departed branch was in the process of being flexed down by a cat paw. It wouldn’t take long for the look of predatory intent etched on the face of its stalker to fade once time was restarted, the cat realising it had just missed its quarry.

Even then, Albert mused, the cat wouldn’t have time to experience its disappointment. By his calculations, the bus would strike the youth within 0.6 of a second. The wet thump of impact, the squeal of tyres and eventual screams from passengers would drive it away almost immediately. He turned to look at the youth and shook his head sadly at the waste.

Without looking away, he said, “So Thelodious what is your plan now? How do you get your outcome?”

“To be honest”, Thelodious drawled, “I don’t see that I have to do anything. Look at the situation as it stands, no laws infringed. Quite perfect as far as I can see.”

“How about the fact that time is no longer progressing?” asked Albert.

Thelodious glared. He loathed Albert and what he perceived as a self-righteous elitism from the other agent. “You and your onerous Physical Laws. What makes them so special?” he spat.

“They are reality,” explained Albert, “it is how the universe is structured.”

“And these Legislative Laws are how society is structured,” said Thelodious.

“And yet your laws change with society but ours stay fixed. Doesn’t that tell you something?” asked Albert.

“Only that we’re progressive and you’re not”, stated Thelodious smugly.

Albert realised that he was gritting his teeth and consciously forced himself to relax. The man drove him mad. He often felt that these debates got dragged down to a level of stupidity and then the other guy would be on his home turf and thrash him from experience. It was exhausting.

“So let me get this straight”, Albert said, “you’re protecting a progressive law that is defined and made relevant by the society in which it exists?”

“That’s right”, said Thelodious.

“And you’re happy for this to happen by time being permanently frozen, hence keeping the status quo?” asked Albert.

“Correct”.

“So wouldn’t that then render the dynamic operating culture from which the law was derived obsolete and make the law pointless?” reasoned Albert.

“Damn”, said Thelodious. He paused mouth open for a while, cogs whirring inside his mind looking for a way out. His jaw worked a few times as he started to say something only to stop and eventually gave up. “Fine”, he said, “restart time. Let the bus through.”

And let the kid be killed thought Albert.

When time started again, the youth was perplexed to be hit in the face by a warm ball of fur that turned out later to be a cat and not 10 tonnes of bus. Quite a good thing to be perplexed about in the scheme of things. The cat for its part never worked out how the cicada transformed into a human and vowed in its small catty mind to only hunt lizards in the future.
The bus driver was the source of much hilarity amongst his workmates whenever he told the story of the phantom zebra crossing boy. The mandatory drug test his boss insisted on came back negative however and he was cleared for further duty.

As Albert faded back into the shadows, he had to suppress a feeling that he might have done the wrong thing. If a few molecules of gas out of place could cause such big consequences, what was transposition of a cicada and human going to do? It didn’t bear thinking about – but that was the thing about Chaos Theory, you never quite knew what difference it would make. The boys in the convection department certainly wouldn’t be hearing from him on this one.

He’d be getting a call from his boss this evening though, of that he was sure. That prat Thelodious would see to it. Once the opportunity to uphold his Legislative position was lost, he could care less for the boy. Well too bad, his boss could be dealt with, right now he was off for a drink. He needed to forget this recent breach of protocol.

Albert Fienman – Physics Cop

I don’t know where I pull this stuff from sometimes but if you’ve got a little physics background you might find it mildly amusing …

The Simon & Schuster Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs...

The punk was hiding down the alley, caught between three sheer unclimbable walls. I knew exactly where he was and that he’d stopped dead. Which was exactly the problem, it was all too neat. Some would say convenient, but I knew a man who would beg to differ. A little someone called Heisenberg. The law wasn’t a matter of convenience, it was the law and you had to obey. Even a little street electron like our friend down in the alley.

The darkness hid me well. Ensconced in my trench coat, hunkered down against the interminable mist that hung in the air, I was dry and calm. A fedora, pulled low over my eyes, made my get-up replete. Looking the part was essential in this game. It wasn’t enough to enforce the physical laws, the trick, nay the style, was in making it look like you’d done nothing at all. Blending into the prevailing history was what added that element of panache that made it all worthwhile.

Drawing on my cigarette, I frowned as I contemplated my options, the subdued red glow highlighting the creases lining my brow. How should I handle this punk? No doubt he was scared, in a street-wise way. Adrenaline fueled anxiety coupled with a violence based self-esteem makes a potent cocktail. Unlike the brightly coloured variety served in the various establishments nearby, this was not a cocktail you wanted even a sip of. Not if you wanted to live with your valency intact. I needed a solution that would draw him out peacefully, leaving everyone alive and well.

My radio crackled into life. “Albert, what’s your move? We still know exactly what’s going on down there”, barked a gravelly voice. “Get a move on or these researchers will be bogus results and it’ll be another ‘Cold Fusion’ debacle all over again!” It was my boss. A hard grinding, no nonsense, 20 millennia veteran of the equations. Hating snake-oil with a vengeance, he bore a grudge against the world in general ever since that fateful day in ’89 when his team had stuffed up and let Pons and Fleischmann detect a batch of heat being smuggled out of their experiment by the neutrino mafia.

He’d copped the political heat that day too, but it had been made clear that I would be the one holding the can if it all went wrong today. It was time for action. The measurement was coming soon. Pulling out my hand gun, I stepped into the mouth of the alley silhouetting myself against the skyline. It made me a perfect target to my little electron friend, but in this game you often had to take risks. Lining up my sights on the center of his forehead, I squeezed off a shot.

His profile exploded in a blur of activity. Limbs flailing, his body twisted in a truly Matrix-style avoidance pattern. To him, time slowed to a crawl as he dodged my slug. From my perspective however, he’d simply disintegrated into a probability wave of potential, my bullet passing benignly through to damage the brick-work behind. Bingo! The ploy was working. Slowly advancing down the alley, I started emptying my clip into him in a measured un-suppressive firing pattern, his body taking the form of a continuous probability wave, bucking and weaving, never exactly anywhere in particular as he worked his magic to avoid my shots.

About halfway down the alley, I felt the change as the measurement was taken. The physicists gathered the data from their experiment. The electron not quite anywhere exactly but almost in many places simultaneously, behaving in awesome mimicry of the laws of physics. And then in a moment it was over. The walls collapsed as the energy was drained from the rig and the electron capered away into the surrounding ether. My job was done – and done with panache. The journals were once again safe from the corrupting influence of those who would thwart the laws of physics.

Taking a final drag of my cigarette, I let it fall, grinding the smoldering stub into pavement as I turned. With my fedora adjusted lower over my eyes, I started a slow swagger back to base. The boss hadn’t called, I knew he wouldn’t. Not when everything went right. In some ways I almost felt guilty robbing him of the opportunity to ball me out for failure because it was his only pleasure – or so it seemed. But only almost. In every way that counted, I felt on top of the world. And so I smiled and took my time enjoying the victory as I wandered on into the night.

The Enemy Within – Conclusion

This is the second half of the story started in The Enemy Within – Part 1

 

COMM LINK ESTABLISHED:

Stephan:  Stephan 13Zeta reporting in sir.

NGC 7331 and Stephan's Quintet

Commander:  Thank-you Zeta.  I see you’ve got the lights back on.

Stephan:  Yes sir, Levi did a great job with that.  (Good, maybe that will do instead of an apology)

Commander:  Excellent.  Proceed with your report.

Stephan:  Sir, we have found the scientist alive and well.

Commander:  Yes, I rather thought you might.  Well done.  Now if you don’t mind I’d like a word with Frank.

Stephan:  Er Frank sir?

Commander:  Yes the scientist.  Frank’s not his real name of course but none of us here a very good at Japanese so we all agreed to call him Frank.

Frank:  (off camera) It’s not that hard Bob.  Sa-da-hi-ra.  Sadahira.  I would have thought even you could have mastered it by now.

Commander:  (rolling his eyes) Zeta, just put Frank on will you.

Frank:  (elbowing Stephan out of the way) I’m here, I’m here.

Commander:  So Frank, you’ve been a bit incommunicado for a while now haven’t you.  Tell me, did we really have to send a team out?

Frank:  You don’t know what it’s like out here.  I warned you that I needed more than just you meat heads sitting on the other end of a vid link.

Commander:  Yes we know, you’re lonely.  But you knew the risks when you signed up for the research grant.

Frank:  160 years is a long time Bob, a guy might change his mind in that time.

Commander:  So what’s your plan then?  We know you’re alive.  You know you can’t come back.  You know we need that research.

Frank:  Yes, but you realise these guys can’t come back either now.

(Off camera):  What?

Commander:  (big sigh) You haven’t done something rash have you Frank?

Frank:  Two words Bob.  Flask 15.  That’s all I’m going to say, I don’t have to paint you a picture.

Commander:  Indeed no.  Zeta?

Stephan:  (appearing back on camera) Yes sir.

Commander:  Frank’s in charge.  I need time to work out our next move.

Stephan:  But sir…

Commander:  I said Frank’s in charge.  Obey orders soldier!

COMM LINK LOST.

 

—————–

 

Levi sat down heavily in his chair.  Jodi glanced at him in shock, a slight blueish tinge seemed to colour her face as if her blood had suddenly drained out of it.  She felt light headed and quickly followed Levi to find a place to collapse into.  Stephan characteristically continued to stare at the vid screen, lost in some other world.  One thought dominated the room.  What did he mean by, “You realize these guys can’t come back either”?

“He he he”.  A scratchy giggle cut through the thick atmosphere of shock, totally incongruous to the moment.  Oblivious, beaming from ear to ear, Frank danced a little capering jig of joy chattering, “I’m the boss.  I’m the boss.  They sent out troopers, but that’s their loss.  Alone so long it’s not for me, this’ll teach them a lesson that I’m awesome.”  He paused for a second and mumbled, “Doesn’t rhyme – hmmm I’ll have to work on that.”  Then gaining momentum he started again, “Who’s the smart one now meat heads?”

Suddenly remembering himself, he stopped his dance and clapping his hands yelled, “Oi people, over here.”  As if waking from some deep sleep, three heads turned slowly to face him.  Amidst the stupor, a hint of hatred could now be seen in the eyes that glared in his direction.  “It’s time to start fixing up the mess you guys made getting into the place.  Silicon-brain, you got the power back up, congratulations.  But that ain’t gonna do for long while the hole this lump blew in the door keeps leaking air and heat into space.  I’ve seen the patch job you guys did and I’ve got a colander in the kitchen with less holes.  Now I need you guys to go and get it sorted properly.  I’ll send the maintenance bots down to give you a hand.  Off you go.”

Stephan wasn’t in any mental state to argue, and in lieu of any other direction, Levi figured Frank had a point.  He could deal with the little weasel once they were less likely to freeze to death.  They moved towards the door with Jodi trailing in their wake.  “Not you sweet cheeks.  You’re the real brains of this outfit right?  I need you to stay here with me.  We’ve got research to do.”  Jodi groaned and stopped.  Levi made a move to protest, but she signaled him with her eyes.  “Just go, he’s insane but he’s not going to harm me.  I’ll be fine.”

When they were alone, Frank asked, “So you got any idea what we do here?”.

“We?  What do you mean we, blue man?”

“Ah you notice my color.  Fair point.”

“How could I not notice your color?  It’s you biggest feature, apart from your obvious insanity that is.”

“Insane?  No…  Well ok, maybe a bit.  But it’s because I’ve been here by myself for so long with this research.  It’s the research that’s also turned me blue, ironic how this passion has defined my two most prominent characteristics.  But you’re wrong about the ‘we’ bit.  You’re my new assistant.”

Radiating defiance she retorted, “And what if I don’t want to?”

“Easy there, I haven’t even made my pitch yet.  Bear with me.”

A solemnity not yet seen came over Frank.  “One hundred and sixty-three years ago an unidentified ship entered out solar system.  Initial attempts to make contact failed, so the United Nations Space Agency decided to put together a mission to investigate.  I was selected as the biological expert for the mission.  We rendezvoused with the craft as it passed the orbit of Jupiter in-bound on a path that would eventually take it through the solar system and out the other side.  By all outward appearances it didn’t seem to have any destination here.

On approach we scanned and attempted further contact with no result.  The scans revealed that the craft was obviously full of life although none of it was moving or otherwise active.  For two weeks we shadowed the craft seeking some method of communication or sign that we’d been noticed.  Everything remained exactly as we found it.  In all there were 3279 distinct life signatures registered.

The Space Agency council deliberated for a further three days about what to do.  With such an abundant diversity of species available to make contact with, the craft presented an exceptionally tantalizing prize for investigation.  I personally was pressing for further action.  I so badly wanted to study these creatures, but the problem was that we didn’t know how they would react unless we could get them to respond.  In the end the allure was too strong and with a 69% majority, the council voted for us to force entry into the craft.

We breached the hull and forced our way on board to find everything silent.  The systems were humming along nicely keeping alive a menagerie of creatures,” he waved his arm indicating the specimen jars, “all in stasis.  That explained the silence.  The ship was running on auto-pilot carrying its cargo asleep to their destination.

Various theories were put forward, proposing answers about its purpose.  Some said that it was this civilisation’s normal mode of transport.  These were simply space wayfarers making their way to a destination.  Others however countered that the diversity of species showed that there was more to it.  Why would such a large number and diversity of distinct species be present for a routine space journey?  The proportion of individuals was too homogenous to be a random distribution of passengers.  An arkship was their favourite theory.  Either a civilisation expanding to colonize other regions of space or seeking to survive a disaster on their homeworld.

A gestalt consciousness made from a conglomeration of species from across the galaxy was also theorised.  If the assumption was made that these creatures were all sentient, it seemed unlikely that they would all originate from the same location.  The ship therefore was a transport for an ever growing singularity of combined minds forming a new individual.  Its journey throughout the universe saw it collecting new species to add to the singular consciousness and improve its capability.

They were all theories however because no matter what we tried, we simply couldn’t make contact.  The big flaw in all theories was why such a sophisticated ship would have no capacity to communicate its purpose or wake an occupant to fill the role when encountering difficulties?  Something was wrong.  Again the council deliberated, what should be done?  Leave the ship to go on its way, or intervene more directly to find answers.  The debate was stronger and more prolonged this time.  After a further two weeks, the council passed by a majority of just 53% a motion to continue investigations.

I was thrilled.  I was going to get first access to research a vast cache of alien biology.  My role was to start taking specimen samples for study.  No decision had yet been reached about what to do with the long term direction of the ship and we wanted as many samples as possible in the event that we would let it continue on its way.  To this day, no-one quite knows what caused the disaster to occur.  I was busy collecting samples from the creatures in stasis.  Our technical crew was trying to interface to the ship’s systems and the military crew were attaching extra restraints to the hull so that we could harness our ship to redirect if necessary.  However within 29 hours of the council’s decision to continue investigations, the entire ship’s occupants were dead.

The stasis fields had started to de-energize within hours but not in a controlled manner.  Rather than gradually bringing entire creatures back to reality, sections of the fields in each chamber would collapse without warning leaving them half frozen and half living.  Irreparable damage to their bodies occurred as cells started living again without the support systems needed to provide oxygen, nutrients and the components of life.  Then the collapse would invert leaving hearts, nervous systems and osmotic chambers seeking to push bodily fluids and signals into non-responsive inert tissues.

The technical crew worked feverishly to stabilise the fields, but in a foreign system they were experimenting at best and had no success.

I did the only thing reasonable in the situation and started preserving the specimens so that the journey would not be a complete disaster.  There would at least be generation’s worth of research that could be done on the alien cadavers.  It was my duty, and at the end of the day we would get away with it.  This unresponsive craft would simply be lost to its owners, if there was anything actually waiting for it in the first place.

Taking 15 specimens at a time, I would transfer them to research flasks to preserve them and then send them to our ship for storage back to Earth.  However time and again, the crew would report only 14 arrived at storage.  I knew that I’d sent 15 because that’s how many I could pack into the transport.  The crew knew that 14 arrived because they assured me that they could count.  Something strange was going on, and that was the time that I started turning blue.

Another mission council was called and it was concluded that I’d been infected with a virus.  Something alien in origin.  Something capable of altering my memories.  Something changing my physiology.  Something we wanted nowhere near the Earth.  Was this the key to the alien ship or just a coincidence of physiology?  To be honest, we still don’t know.  The council’s decision however, was that if we could quarantine the ship, there was still the potential for the research to continue.  That’s how it ended up being parked out here in the asteroid belt.

I was the only one to catch the virus.  We didn’t know its long term effects so the rest of the crew was kept away from the specimens.  No-one was allowed to return to Earth however, the risk of an unknown virus running rampant on the over-crowded planet was simply unconscionable.  My research continued and it’s made the sacrifice worthwhile.  Many of the pharmaceutical and genetic advances that you’ve taken for granted your whole life have started here in theories or data I’ve collected from the creatures.

Over time we learnt something else about the virus too, the rest of the crew eventually succumbed to old age and died.  160 odd years is a long time ago isn’t it?  Wondering why I’m still here?  I know I am, but it appears that the physiological changes of the virus have extended my lifespan.  It’s something I’m hoping we can learn more about, as are our bosses.”

A wicked little grin crossed his face and he wagged his eyebrows suggestively at Jodi.  “He he he.  You’re going to stay, I can see it in your face”, he said.

Jodi grimaced, “No I don’t want to.  You’re wrong.  I didn’t agree to this …”.

“I’m afraid you misunderstand me”, Frank replied.  “It’s not your desire I see in your face, it’s your infection.”

Jodi paused in shock for a second trying to grasp his meaning.  Then slowly, as if fearful of what she might see, she held up her hand to find the blueish hue growing on her skin.  She glanced at the specimens trying to gain some insight into the implications of her situation.  Seeking to suck some meaning from their lifeless corpses.  “I’ve been played”, she thought, “can I live this life?  Do I have a choice?”.

Frank bustled over to the console ignoring her pain.  “So about these crew mates of yours”, he asked, “how strongly would you object to their, shall we say, absence?  They are by the airlock at the moment, wouldn’t be hard to ensure they’re sealed outside and not able to distract our work …”

 

—————–

 

The Commander sighed and opened the mission file.  It had been neither easy nor rewarding choosing a squad for this mission.  Knowing that they’d probably never return both simplified and complicated the choices.

Stephan had been easy.  His total incompetency at leadership meant there was nothing to lose and it actually solved the problem of what to do with his future.

Jodi on the other hand had been tough.  He needed someone intelligent enough and with a similar field of expertise to keep Frank from going mad.  Yet it was a sacrificial assignment, no matter who he chose he’d be losing a good person.

Levi was essentially collateral damage.  The squad needed a techie and the short straw fell to him.

The biggest factor in all his choices had been that these people had no family or close friends who would come asking questions later.

 

The Enemy Within – Part 1

Kuiper-belt

My apologies if anyone is waiting for an update on the story I started with my Prologue post.  I’ve realized that it’s a much bigger story and I need to plan it some more.  Here’s the first of a two part-er – I promise I will finish this in my next post and before I start anything else new.

 

 

“I tell you sir, there were 15 flasks in here when I secured the room,” yelled Jodi.  In the background wailing klaxons continued to blare.  The alarm had been triggered when the team forced entry to the facility and their constant drone was taking its toll.  Jodi was trying to keep calm, but needing to yell over the noise was not conducive to having a reasoned discussion and her nerves were getting frayed.  “Well I can only count 14,” countered Stephan, “and I graduated military academy so I know I can count.  Sometimes I wonder what they teach you academic types at college, it’s not difficult.  If you use both hands you only need to take off one more shoe to get to 15!  Or maybe you didn’t understand me when I said ‘secure the area’?  How can a flask go missing in a secured area?”

If anything, Stephan’s composure was fairing even worse than Jodi’s and that wasn’t good.  He was supposed to the leader of this expedition.  It seemed like everything was going wrong.  After being dropped onto the asteroid, they’d turned up to the facility that mission control has assured them would be open only to find it locked.  Three hours of searching for an override, unlocked door, or any signs of life and he’d had enough and ordered the door blown.  Now they were in, but 4 continuous hours of the alarm was just too much.

Something snapped.  Turning his wrath from Jodi, he spun, strode across to his Techie and hoisting him onto his feet by his collar yelled, “Dammit Levi, get that alarm silenced now or I’ll silence it with your face.”

“I’m doing my best”, he stammered, “but this scientist guy has changed the system.  He’s patched his own mods into the kernel and changed the alarm system itself.”

“So?”, demanded Stephan.

“Well I think he’s got the power system requiring a watchdog signal from the alarm system otherwise it will shut down too.  Sort of like a fail-safe in case someone wants to hack in.  Don’t turn off the alarm properly and the whole facility goes down.  I just need more …”

“Too late”, bawled Stephan yanking the power cable from the wall.

Silence blossomed over the trio.  It felt like a physical pressure had lifted and mild tinnitus rang in their ears as the assaulted ear drums tried to recover.  As one, the three sagged slightly tension draining from their frames.

“So what was this garbage you were going on about Whiz Kid?  Watchdog this!  It looks fine to me”, sneered Stephan.  With that the lights cut out plunging them into darkness.

—————

COMM LINK ESTABLISHED:

Stephan:  Stephan 13Zeta reporting in sir.

Commander:  Thank-you Zeta.  Why is it so dark there?

Stephan:  Slight problem with the power systems sir.  We’ll get it sorted.

Commander: (slight smile creasing his face)  I’m sure you have it in hand.  Proceed with your report.

Stephan:  We’ve now gained access to the facility and secured the area.  The entry protocols contained in the mission plan were inappropriate sir.  My goal now is to re-establish power and commence detailed reconnaissance of the facility.

Commander:  Good work.  As you know, we lost contact with the facility six months ago so there was always a chance that entry protocols were out of date.  I suspect that other aspects of the mission may require you to show similar initiative and lateral thinking.  Proceed with the mission as per the stated goals.

Stephan:  Thank-you sir.  Zeta out.

—————–

Behind Stephan’s back Jodi and Levi shared a glance, this wasn’t exactly the news they had been hoping for.  With a mission starting so appallingly as this one, the chance of meeting their stated goals seemed slim at best.  Neither of them were seasoned in military exercises, but it seemed that surely a commanding officer should be a little more competent that theirs.  Lurching from one bad judgment to the next, Stephan had seemed incapable of handling anything that departed from the pre-planning.  He covered his indecision with bravado, bad humor and insults and now it seemed that mission control had know up-front that it wasn’t going to be straight-forward.  Why had they chosen him, or maybe they just didn’t know their men?

“Better keep our heads down or we might cop a patella in the face”, said Levi.

“Huh?” asked Jodi.

“A patella in the face.  From his knee-jerk reactions”.  A broad smile lit Levi’s face as he glanced again at Jodi.  Sometimes you just needed some good humor in a bad situation.  He hoped it would make him appear suave and calm under pressure, a little something to raise her opinion of him.  She was gorgeous and he hoped he might be in with a shot.

She cracked a tiny grin and said, “I don’t know about that, but he might be copping my knee in another part of his anatomy soon if he doesn’t ease off a bit.”

They turned back to their equipment.  In lieu of the facility’s built-in lighting that had been so tactfully shut off, it was now important to get their portable flood lights working.  The stands had already been assembled with high powered halogens and placed in a hexagonal shape surrounding the workspace.  This lab would be their base of operations and so they wanted good lighting.  It had the benches and equipment that Jodi would require for examining the specimens contained in the flasks.  Levi’s workload had just increased dramatically, but once he’d got the main computer back online, he too would need somewhere comfortable to get stuck into the records contained there-in.  Hauling a tiny radioactive generator out of its travel crate, he joined the thick cables to the lighting equipment and entered the startup password.  On cue, the lights powered up quickly flooding the area with that slightly unnatural blue-ish tinged light expected of halogen bulbs and left the pair squinting as their eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness.

From the corner of the room, the lights raised Stephan from the quiet reverie he had been in since closing off his communication with mission control.  He strode over to the pair, determination etched in the language of his stride and parked himself in front of them.  “Right.  About time, let’s get moving.  I want to know three things.  Firstly, who this guy is.”  He waved his arms to indicate at the layout of the room.  Research equipment, terminals, furniture and amenities all bore witness to a design obviously intended for a human occupant.  “Secondly, I want to know what he was up to.  Jodi start with those 14 specimen flasks …”.

“Sir, there were 15”, she protested.

Irritation flickered across his face, “Well I only see 14.  Just start with what you’ve got, we’ll work from there.  I want to know what those things are he’s been working with.  And thirdly, I want to know what’s happened to him.”

Inside the flasks, various alien forms hung suspended in cloudy liquid.  Their presence was a reminder that this lab was not a standard facility, a point compounded by the fact that it was built on an asteroid in the Kuiper belt.  Beyond the orbit of Neptune, it shared its orbit with other asteroids in a band extending out to approximately 50 AU from the sun, their most famous neighbour being Pluto.

Staring at the inert forms within the flasks, it was easy for the mind to wonder what dangers were being hidden so far out.  What was it about these specimens that required the safety of isolation?  They all looked dead, but something had happened to the scientist for contact to have been lost for the last 6 months.

A shiver passed through Stephan, not only because of his anxious mind.  This far out from heat from the sun was minimal and with no atmosphere to keep what little arrived in, the surface temperature was almost as low as it was possible to get.  With the power systems shut off, not only were they without light, they were without heating and it was becoming apparent.  A thin sheen of condensation was starting to form on visible metal surfaces as heat radiated from the outer shell of the facility into the near vacuum surrounding it.  If the systems didn’t get restarted, they would soon have to climb back into the added protection of their drop suits, a prospect that nobody was keen on.  They were too much of a hassle.

Stephan turned to walk out of the room, calling over his shoulder as he went.  “And Levi, get that power back up ASAP.  If you’d sorted that alarm out in the first place we wouldn’t be in this mess.  I’m going out on patrol.”

As he strode out the door into the dark corridor beyond, Levi gestured lewdly with his arm and then kicked the pile of gear by his foot.  Glancing surreptitiously at Jodi to see if she noticed, he went back to work on the main system.  “Stuff it”, he mumbled to himself, “I’m just going to find all the speakers and cut their wires and let the alarm keep going off.  ‘Couldn’t be bothered working out how this guy’s twisted mind had changed the system.”

—————–

As Stephan patrolled down the dark corridor, he could feel the panic rising.  Turning to ensure that he was out of sight of the main lab, he pressed his back against the cool metal of the wall allowing a trickle of condensation to run down his neck.  A physical sensation was helpful, something he could concentrate on that wasn’t this insistent anxiety hammering in his head.  Breathe, clear your head he reminded himself.

It was all going pear-shaped.  Again!  What did he expect?  Why would it be different this time?  Worse yet, he couldn’t see how things could get better.  No matter what decision he made, he was stuffed.  There was always a way for them to be wrong.  A wave of depression threatened to overwhelm him.

His Commanding Officer had ushered him into his office a month ago.  “We have decided to give you a reprieve”, he was informed.  “But there will be no more chances after this one.  You will not be recovering if this goes wrong”, he’d been warned.  The CO had looked at Stephan as if he expected thanks, but all he felt was another nail in the coffin of his career.  A sledgehammer to his heart, crushing him under a burden he knew he couldn’t bear.  Even Stephan could see he wasn’t suitable for the task, why was he being chosen?  “Thank-you sir, I won’t let you down”, he managed to get out.

But a let-down he was, it defined him.  For some reason the CO had been hiding something and pretended the mission was fine when they talked earlier on the vid phone.  It didn’t add up.

The corridor lights snapped back on and once Stephan was jolted out of his thoughts by a burst of brilliance.  “I guess that’s something”, he thought.  “Levi’s got the power back on.  No sirens either.  Perhaps I should apologize later, or would that make me look like a weak officer?  Sheesh I don’t know.”

Hoisting his rifle into his arms again, he moved off down the corridor.

—————–

Jodi laid down her scalpel, rolling her aching shoulders she tried to get some relief from uncomfortable position the isolation cell forced her to work in.  On the other side of the glass, the latest specimen was laid out on the table.  With her hands through circular holes with built-in gloves that ended inside the cell, she could stay outside without risk of exposure while still working.  She was reticent to do much with the specimens however because she knew so little about them.

There was no way that she could unravel in a few days, mysteries that someone had dedicated years to investigating.  The real trick she decided was to see what their missing scientist had been doing with them.  That might give her some clue about what he was up to.  So far she’d found little and understood even less.

Now up to specimen seven, she’d found that no discernable work had been done on any past number 3.  The first one had been extensively dissected.  What appeared from outward appearance to be a fibrous fraying tissue sample, had on closer inspection turned out to be an entire creature.  The skin was mostly gone, the individual muscles and ligaments laid bare and separated.  The frayed appearance came from the multitude of muscles that joined its petite skeleton.  Rather than having a few largish muscles, this thing seemed to consist of thousands of individual muscles attached in a complex arrangement to small multi-segmented bones.  It would take more time to work out how it fit together, but she was fairly sure that it would be extremely flexible whatever it was.

The second one she really couldn’t make head nor tail of, primarily because there didn’t appear to be anything resembling a head or a tail.  The third one definitely had a head, but only the crown had been removed to reveal the brain sitting inside.  What she really needed were some of this guy’s notes, then she might be able to put some context to the problem.

Levi had done well getting the power systems up.  He’d smirked about that and made sure that he caught her eye.  She’d just rolled hers and shaken her head with a laugh.  She supposed he was a little cute and obviously interested, but she wasn’t keen to start anything while out on a mission.

Since the power system success however, Levi hadn’t made great progress.  He kept muttering about patched kernels and non-standard shells, but she also wondered if the lingering glances he kept casting her direction stopped him from giving it his full attention.  She’d been very tempted to call him on it by saying, “Hey Levi, would it help if I sat over in front of your terminal so then you wouldn’t have to turn your head so much?”, but she’d bitten her lip.  They needed to keep things amiable.

They both heard footsteps from the corridor and turned expecting to see Stephan returning from his patrol, but nobody appeared.  Instead a strange wizened little voice echoed from the doorway.

“Hmmm.  Curious you are.”  They stared blankly into the empty corridor.  “Much you have to learn, the two of you.  Yes.  Always two there are, no more, no less: a master and an apprentice.”  With that a figure launched itself through the doorway landing in a pose, arms stretched wide as if ready to take a bow.  “Surprise”, he shouted, “I bet I wasn’t what you were expecting”.  In front of them stood a slightly bent Japanese man, totally blue and bald as a bowling ball.  Not a single hair could be seen anywhere on his body, eyebrows included.

Levi and Jodi just stood there rooted to the spot, jaws literally hanging open with shock.  “Come on”, the little man prompted, “I bet you were thinking, Yoda right?”.  A look of complete incomprehension remained clearly etched on their faces.  “Hello, Yoda?  Star Wars?  What about you nerd boy, surely you’ve heard of him?”  Levi managed to regain enough composure to shake his head slightly and the man slumped.  Strolling over to the terminal, he sat in the chair, opened a small drawer and proceeded to make himself a roll-up cigarette from the contents.  “What is the world coming to eh, don’t they teach the classics in college anymore?  Star Wars is one of the quintessential pieces of early science fiction cinematography.  It’s inspired millions and been the subject of countless doctoral dissertations.  There’s just no culture in today’s society.”

Despite their shock, something in the back of Jodi’s brain rang a bell.  “Are you …”, she began, “… are you the scientist who runs this facility?”.  “Bingo”, he said, winking and pointing a finger at her, “give the lady a prize.”

Just then a roar erupted from the corridor.  “WHAT … THE … HECK?!”  Stephan had returned.

To be continued …