Thursday, August 25, 2011

Land Leave 14

An accretion disc around a black hole. It is formed as the black hole sucks a star's mass into orbit around it.

Dr. Kelvin, James, and Bill sat at a table eating quietly. The food was a gray mess. Bill looked like he was someplace else, letting the world pass through him. James, as always, had finished his food already; he figured that the less time spent on his tongue the better. Dr. Kelvin ate. It was all she could do.

Three days and nearly no progress, the cube had a maddeningly tenuous grasp of English, and the translations of the texts had proved more difficult than initially thought. The organic computers and the cube had been roughly interfaced with each other to transfer huge amounts of data back and forth. The problem had been synthesizing that information. The two systems could learn but they were, at the end of the day, computers and bound by the limits that their programmers had set upon them. The organic computers were much better archivers of information than they were adapters to that information. The cube was well-suited to giving out its history in a basic framework, but the complexity of learning and responding to complex stimuli had the object stumped.

Simple questions and numerical conversions of standard metrics had been the biggest progress. Sorensen, before he stormed out of the bay in frustration had asked the cube if it was a weapon.

“I can do many things.” It was a very dissatisfying answer. The second day it became clear that weapons were equivalent to a butter knife or a kitchen appliance to the cube. They all changed things to higher states of entropy. The cube had no motive and could not distinguish a weapon from a tool.

Dr. Kelvin felt defeated. She had made the biggest discovery in human history; aliens existed and left a full catalog of their history. The foot work and cost had been too high for her. She had nightmares about stumbling into the interrogation room, talking to Bacchi. Sometimes it was another officer on the ship, always there was blood. She had trusted Bacchi, found him to be intelligent and ethical. She couldn't grasp that she had been wrong. It made her sick and she pushed away her food. “We're going nowhere.”

Bill snapped out of his trance, “what have we been doing wrong? I feel like the answer is staring straight at us.”

“We can't talk to it, that's what. Our questions are crap. Everything we say, the dumb thing can't understand,” James took a gulp of his water, “it took us two days to figure out it didn't even have a concept of weapons.” James looked away and shook his head. “At least it's speaking our language. It was hard enough to understand the obscure grooves that made up the alien language.”

The captain came by, he could see the three of them were tense, “I probably shouldn't ask this but how is the work going?” Everyone shuffled slightly in their seats, “that bad huh? I know you'll find the key to it.”

“We did, Bacchi killed himself over it,” James mumbled almost inaudibly. Bill heard it but didn't react.

“I'm sorry, I didn't catch that,” the captain wanted to hear about any new information.

“I said that we have the keys, sir, but we don't know what the locks are,” James strained.

“Ha. You're clever, y'know that? Do you mind if I sit?” the captain had lost some of his seriousness, he knew they were in a holding pattern until a breakthrough occurred, “I told Sorensen a bit about this, but I think you two should know too. I was a pinhole cowboy way back when. I was one of the lucky few test pilots that made it through. Once we were fleeing a pirate vessel in the asteroid belt. There were two ships, the Forte and the Midway, both had experimental pinhole technology on them. I'm talking about the first organic computers. Anyway, we were out-gunned by a lot, and going to be quickly overrun. The fastest our ships could move was .4c, and the Midway had a blown lateral thruster. We decided to try to use the organic computers to our advantage.” The captain grabbed the salt and pepper shakers to demonstrate, “back then, the theory was that two or more stabilizing fields could pass through a pinhole together if they were sufficiently close enough to each other. There were two problems though, margin of error and kickback. The margin of error in movement was tighter and more exact than the most finely honed cowboy's reflexes—only organic computers were theorized to be able to do it. The kickback was a shockwave that was sent back as the pinhole sluffed off matter.”

James looked at the captain, “so you decided to go for it right? You lined up your ships and hoped the kick-back would keep the pirates from orienting to your position?”

“Sure, if you want to get technical. It really had more to do with the nature of the captains. They were best buds, and wild rebels in the navy. The Midway and Forte were constantly engaged in the wildest stunts imaginable. I believe that the AmU command put them in those slow, out-of-date wrecks because command liked them but didn't trust them,” the captain smirked.

“So the captain ordered you to pinhole with the other ship?” Bill asked.

“Yeah, it was easy at first, the computers took over, carefully aligning the ships side-by-side. The stabilizing fields activated and we started threading in. As we did so I stayed on the controls just in case. Right as we passed into the temporal, I felt the Midway's field fail.”

“Your ship?” Bill and James were confused which ship he was on.

“No, I was on the Forte, listen boys,” the captain briefly snapped out of the memory, “anyway, the Midway's field failed, leaving only the Forte's stabilizers to work approximately twice the area it was rated for. I quickly took the helm of the field, hoping I could drop us back into space. Then the field failed entirely.” The captain sighed as he moved the two shakers close together, “I lost the ship for a while, everyone died. But the temporal dimension doesn't do well with matter. It kicked us out. I came to just as we were exiting the pinhole, and I was able to pull most of the Forte out of the hole.”

“You lost the Midway and most of the crew.” Dr. Kelvin looked up, “I remember hearing about it many years ago.”

The captain poured out pepper onto the table. “No. Nothing was lost, it was all just in odd configurations. The official story is that we lost the outer hull on our port-side. That's not exactly true. Its integrity was compromised because large chunks of organic matter had been fused into its framework. Months later, we finally found the captain on a large patch of debris from the Midway; he, along with five crew members had been mashed together into parts of the fusion engine.”

“Sir?” James didn't understand the point of the story.

“It's a rough universe. We all have to sacrifice, and we do the best with what we have. I know you are trying hard and I know that you can rise to the occasion. Use this time to your advantage, because once back we won't really have any.” The captain rose out of his seat and walked away whistling.

“I can't pin that guy.” James shook his head as he watched the captain walk away, “keys, time, cowboys.”

Dr. Kelvin perked up, “the cubes. The keys. James, do you know why we don't pinhole more than one ship at a time?”

“Because the Forte and the Midway proved it impossible.” James said sardonically.

“Yes, and no. The Midway's field failed and cowboys tried to compensate. What if the computers were powerful enough and the fields stayed stable?”

“Well, unicorns would fall from the sky and simultaneous pinhole travel would be possible.” James wasn't up for hypotheticals.

“What could possibly make those things happen?” Bill idly asked. Then he got it, “the cubes.”

“James, you saw it. It held open huge pinholes in a stable field with the other cubes. I think that it might be able to help us.” Dr. Kelvin was smiling, something rare for her.

“Yeah, but then they failed, and the planet was destroyed in a supernova. Remember?” James really didn't get it.

“The kick-back.” Dr. Kelvin's shoulders had risen to her ears in excitement. “All of the matter going through those pinholes without a stabilizing field, there was a huge matter kick-back. That's what disrupted the fields.”

“The keys to the key,” Bill couldn't help the epiphany.

Kelvin had suddenly taken on a girlish and na├»ve air, the weight of the mission lifted off her and she almost giggled, “let's go see the cube.”