Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sunday Night SF at Delaware Libertarian: Incident at Gliese 581C (conclusion)

You can find Part One here; Part Two here.

Incident at Gliese 581c

an original science fiction story by


Steven H. Newton

(c) 2008; all rights reserved



It was consistently evident from the look on Lieutenant Detroit’s angular though not unattractive face that she disapproved of the work involved in Captain Leath’s never-ending inventories. Each day she duly briefed him on the status of at least nine different accountings, noting that in every category the results were either a perfect match for reported expenditures or well within the allowable percentage of wastage for perishable supplies. Finally, about two weeks after Slattery’s suicide, she nerved herself to ask the Captain exactly what the point of the exercise was.

Leath maintained eye contact with her for several seconds, trying to decide whether to simply invoke his prerogatives or to offer his executive officer an explanation. He’d not known Detroit before this mission, and—as the back-up commander during training—had not spent much time with her prior to launch. Leath knew that she had been more disconcerted than he to discover upon decanting that she was no longer serving under Massood, for whom she clearly had a case of hero worship bordering on puppy love. Nonetheless, Leath had found her to be a meticulous subordinate despite her relative inexperience.

He owed her something.

“Come over here for a moment, Lieutenant.” He tapped out a series of commands to bring up the discrepancy reports from emergency rations and supplemental breathables. Both showed less than .289% deviation from expected stocks.

“Now, let’s try this.” Leath entered another set of commands, resulting in a second column of figures in both categories. Both sets matched almost perfectly.

“I don’t understand, Captain. What’s your point?”

“The first column shows what we’re missing in terms of food and canned air,” Leath said amicably. “On the right is an estimate of the consumption level—at bare survival—for food for one individual for a few days longer than six months. The breathable shortage represents enough air to pressurize approximately half of one ship module for the same period.”

He touched the screen, calling up a sub-menu and selecting an option from it.

“Here’s our wastage of Coldsleep meds. Notice that we have on hand exactly the right amount of the drugs.”

“What’s unusual about that?” Detroit’s tone of voice hovered between outright certainty that her commander had gone round the bend and the studied caution of a cadet who’d been tricked once too often by her training cadre.

“What’s unusual,” Leath said, “is that we’ve got all the meds, but look here—we’re missing the precise number of dispensable injectors necessary to carry one individual through chill-down protocols. How can we be missing the injectors, but not the drugs?

Detroit considered this conundrum at some length, and then asked what her captain considered a very intelligent question before offering an opinion. She said, “What other anomalies have you found, sir?”

“Actually, there are several,” Leath said, “although they seem to be somewhat self-contradictory. Look at this.”

He called up the sub-routine that measured power expenditure from the main and back-up reactors. Two results had been previously highlighted.

“That’s the cumulative power drain prior up to the point at which we starting decanting. Although it’s well within acceptable parameters, the ship used a little more than twice as much power than the mission profile projected.”

“I see that,” Detroit admitted. “But I’m not sure why we’d consider it anomalous. Both the second Centauri mission and the Eridani expedition reported high power consumption.”

“True enough, yet look here. This graph shows the rate of power consumption throughout the voyage. It’s almost an exact match for the expected parameters, and it includes no spikes at all. So tell me, Lieutenant, how could we have used twice as much power over a twenty-one-year trip without ever consuming it? Even some sort of system bleed should show up here.”

As she floated at his shoulder, Lieutenant Detroit not only grappled with these apparent paradoxes, but also began the difficult intellectual exercise of re-evaluating her commander. There was something happening here that she did not understand, and her perplexity was not limited to the expenditure of electrical power. This unnerved the stolid young officer more than encountering a satellite from the future ever could have. She considered several questions, rejected them as either trivial or not calculated to get to the point of the matter, and then settled on one.

“Captain, what made you start looking for all of this?”

Leath did not answer immediately. He was visibly contemplating just how much he trusted both his chain of reasoning and his lieutenant. Finally, he decided that he would need to place his trust in both.

“Professor Rothmann’s four scenarios have bothered me from the start, primarily because there weren’t five of them. Think about it, Lieutenant. We encounter first a satellite and then the remains of a Loper, both of which give unmistakable evidence of having been produced at a time after we left Earth, and even after we arrived in the Gliese system. Rothmann built all his scenarios based on resolving that chronological paradox, but what if there isn’t one?”

“How could there not be a paradox, Captain?”

Leath looked like a man about to leap off a bridge into a rushing river, hesitating before he took the irrevocable plunge. He said, “What if there’s nothing at all anomalous about the comsat? What if the problem is that our estimation of the date is wrong? Maybe it’s not really 2215, as we have all assumed.”

“When do you think it is?”

Leath said slowly, “I believe that we’re somewhere in the vicinity of 2245 or 2246. I think that our trip here took twice as long as expected, and that the follow-up mission has already been here and headed for home.”

He removed the data from his screen, replacing it with an orbital view of twilight-band Udry, its north pole currently swathed in a massive thunderhead of grey-green clouds, through which flashes of lightning could be seen every ten seconds or so. Slattery had died only a few days before the NanoDust swarm had confirmed the existence of multi-cellular life clinging doggedly to the rocks of Hoobart’s Wart. The Deep Oceanic Probe had also reported large, flickering shapes, apparently moving under their own power in the dayside world ocean, a body of water both surprisingly deficient in heavy metals and abundantly saturated with calcium-based salts.

The silence after the Captain’s revelation continued for several minutes. Detroit propelled herself wordlessly back to her own screens, strapped in, and began to bring up a stream of data. Eventually she stopped, arched her head back and closed her eyes. When she spoke, her words came out in a hoarse whisper: “When I checked the drive logs, they showed everything as nominal—twenty-one years of uninterrupted cruising at .995 C. But if you examine the maintenance cycles in the sub-routine, there are twice as many as there should be.”

“Your conclusion, Lieutenant?”

“If the trip took forty-two years, our velocity never exceeded .5 C. Something happened to cut the drive back by fifty percent.”

Leath said, “Go ahead and finish the chain. I know you’ve worked it out.”

“It wasn’t an accident.”


* * *


Rothmann’s quarters had surprised Leath when he first visited them. Unconsciously, he had expected the iconoclastic physicist would not have invested the time in decorating them as everyone else did. Instead, bright holos of mid-Twenty-First Century digital neo-Expressionist color symphonies covered the walls, competing for the viewer’s attention with their persistently changing hues. There was also a delicate smell of cinnamon and the almost subliminally distant tones of a Sibellius concerto in the background.

The physicist hung in the center of his cabin, upside down with reference to the extruded furnishing, his data-gloved fingers twitching, and his eyes shrouded in virtual wrap-arounds. Leath and Detroit could see his lips moving as he mumbled to himself. He must, however, have had a telltale routine running that registered their entrance, because within less than thirty seconds his glasses became transparent.

“Is something amiss, Captain? The last time you invited yourself into my quarters we had to deal with the errant satellite. Has there been another strange discovery requiring my immediate attention?”

Leath could not help noticing that Rothmann seemed unconcerned that they might have come bearing news of a second suicide.

“There has been an additional discovery, Professor, but it’s not something we need your help figuring out,” he said. “I’m actually far more interested in your progress on the Takai Transforms. I was telling Lieutenant Detroit that you’d already moved on from the first transposition of the Third to the second of the First, and—I hesitate to say it—but she didn’t believe me.”

“You are a student of the Transforms, Lieutenant?” Rothmann asked, disbelief dripping from every word.

Detroit mustered a thin smile. “As a matter of fact, yes, Dr. Rothmann,” she said. “I studied drive mechanics under Kien-tsu and took my major field with Knorrs Whinby. That’s why I was so skeptical when the Captain told me about the progress you’ve made. Even the last paper you authored before we launched suggested that fully resolving the first of the Third would take three or four decades of dedicated processing time.”

Leath thought Rothmann looked distinctly uncomfortable, but the physicist kept his voice level as he said, “Sometimes, you know, Lieutenant, inspiration can leapfrog us past mindless calculation. I made some intuitive though well-founded guesses about using the Bergeron Abstractions to modify Benvenides’ time expansion variable that paid off much more rapidly than even I expected.”

“That’s pretty impressive work, professor. I’m just wondering how you managed to verify them in the few months since we decanted,” Detroit said. “After all, if I recall correctly, the simplest application of the Bergeron Abstractions requires 10,500 permutations. That would take even a quantum-organic mainframe like ours two full years to work through.”

“Lieutenant Detroit,” Leath interjected mildly. “I’ve told you that you missed the point. Doctor Rothmann had plenty of time to handle all of that—forty-two years of dedicated mainframe time, to be exact. Isn’t that accurate, Doctor?”

Rothmann, who had maintained his upside-down orientation to his visitors until this point in the conversation, now touched a spider-strand-thin mooring line and used it as a pivot to rotate himself face-to-face with the two officers. A flush spread up his neck as he ripped the visor from his eyes, snarling, “What nonsense is this, Leath? You come into my quarters both unannounced and uninvited to accuse me of what, exactly? Stealing computer time? And you, Lieutenant, parading around your precious graduate school tutoring by a couple of hacks, as if you can discuss Takai’s work with me as a peer? I think you forget that you’re talking to the man whose drive gave humanity the stars. I built the goddamn engine that makes your little ship go!”

“Which is why you knew exactly how to cut our velocity by half, spoof the clock algorithms, and overlay the drive logs with a falsified history,” Leath said.

Rothmann could not resist admitting to his own intelligence. He said, “Of course I could do all of that, Captain. But exactly when do you propose I had the opportunity? I cycled into Coldsleep exactly when you did, which means that even if I had manipulated the drive I wouldn’t remember doing so.”

“Actually, sir, all our records suggest that you took your protocol injections separately from everyone else on the mission,” Detroit said. “Something about a series of meetings for estate planning in Switzerland, I believe.”

“I wouldn’t recall, Lieutenant, as you should know.”

“Oh, you recall perfectly well, Rothmann,” Leath said. “Because you didn’t take the injections then. You paid quite handsomely, I suspect, to have yourself installed onboard sedated in a nonfunctional Coldsleep tank, which you exited about six hours post-launch, or roughly two hours before the drive kicked in. Then you overrode the shut-outs to max us out at .5 C, entered your program in the mainframe, and started your own personal series of injections with the meds you’d brought along for the purpose. The only problem is, you neglected to carry a set of injectors, so you had to filch one from our emergency supplies.”

“Nobody would ever have noticed,” Detroit said, “if it hadn’t been for the satellite. As it was, only Captain Leath became suspicious enough to check the sub-routines and inventories.” Her tone took on a momentary tinge of self-reproach. “I thought he was just being an obsessive-compulsive ass because he was jealous of the way everyone suddenly turned to you for leadership.”

Rothmann stripped off his data-gloves with angry, jerky movements, and tossed them away. He snarled, “I suppose you expect me to be contrite and apologetic. Do you honestly think that the inconsequential loss of a few extra decades in Coldsleep for a crew of non-entities can be weighed in the balance against the possibility of humanity obtaining a true warp drive? With what I have accomplished thus far, I will be able to program the mainframe to finish solving the Transforms by the time we return to Earth.”

“I don’t consider Phineen Slattery’s death inconsequential, Rothmann,” said Leath quietly.

“It really doesn’t matter what you think, does it, Leath? What do you think the people who run Earth are going to do? Turn down the gift of faster-than-light travel because I didn’t play by the rules, and one weakling couldn’t hack it?”

“You’re probably right, professor. Which is why I don’t intend to give them that choice.”

In a single, fluid motion, Detroit reached into her uniform blouse, pulled out a low-velocity needle gun, and shot Hoobart Rothmann twice in the chest.


* * *



Rothmann shrieked, reflexively tearing the darts out of his pectorals as he fell backwards. Detroit casually returned the needle gun to its concealed position. Leath kicked off from the wall, and unceremoniously wrestled the thrashing physicist toward his sleeping hammock. Together the two officers managed to strap him in, binding both his wrists and ankles in the process.

“What have you done?” Rothmann demanded, his words noticeably starting to slur. For the first time in their acquaintance, Leath saw genuine fear in the physicist’s eyes.

The Captain said, “The first shot was the initial Coldsleep protocol injection. The second one was a time-released major tranquilizer—pseudo-Thorazine, I think Doctor Furmun said. It’s only fair, professor. You chilled down after the rest of us on the trip out; you can make up the difference on the way back.”

While he spoke, Detroit busied herself at Rothmann’s console.

“She’s downloading your work thus far, professor, and then wiping the files out of memory. You won’t need them. According to Doctor Furmun, by combining the trank with the Coldsleep injections you’re going to lose even a bigger chunk of memory than usual. You probably won’t have any coherent recollections of anything over the past few weeks. I doubt you’ll remember how far you’d gotten, or whether or not you even managed to pull anything meaningful from the mainframe when we decanted.” Leath smiled without the slightest trace of humor, and told the other man, “You’re going home with nothing, Rothmann.”

“The drive…. You can’t….” The physicist’s eyes lost their focus and his speech descended into a meaningless mumble.

Detroit handed Leath a chip with a look of deep concern.

“You’re going to wipe this? I hate to say it, sir, but the bastard’s right. We can’t just destroy all the work he’s done.”

“We’re not, Lieutenant. On the other hand, we’re not going to take it home so he can twist this in his favor, either. We’re going to download it all into the satellites we leave in orbit around Udry. If, by the time we get back to Earth, nobody’s gotten this far on the Transforms, they can come retrieve it. It’ll only be a delay of about four decades.”

“They’ll cashier you for this, Captain. They won’t understand. I’m not sure I understand.”

Leath shrugged. “They might,” he admitted. “I’ll certainly have given them grounds. But interstellar captains—even the second-raters like me—are hard to come by. You still believe propaganda about Jolly and Heynan and Massood. I’ve shipped with them, Detroit, and I know better.”

The Lieutenant still looked doubtful, which Leath took as a positive sign. Eventually she’d think it through, including the fact that Deanna Slattery had by now been out of Coldsleep for nine years, and would be wrinkled and grey when she discovered the truth about her husband’s death. Dany Detroit would replay everything, trying to determine how she might have handled things differently had she been Captain.

Leath had spent enough sleepless nights trying to second-guess the cold decisions Abner Jolly had made during Slingshot to know what that was like. That, however, was her problem. If she worked it out, one day she’d get to sit in the big chair and construct her own demons. If not, she’d go home and find a new line of work.

Captain Kirk Leath, meanwhile, abruptly recalled that he’d invited Boone to dinner tonight, and had absolutely no idea what to serve.

Next week: War on the Cheap

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