The Sky Rock’s mess hall, a homey mishmash of pastel colors, soothing textures and soft lighting, was a hive of speculation about the image that Arielle had just broadcast, ship-wide. As a veteran of dozens of missions, Crawford had witnessed the phenomenon many times. Bright, overactive minds were desperately trying to fill in the gaps in their current definition of reality with anything at hand. Out of the hundreds of suggestions that would surface that afternoon, only a tiny fraction would have actual bearing on the situation.
Determined not to be swept up in the nervous chatter, Crawford kept his head down and made a quick march to the nearest snack replicator. But his attempt to slip in and out of the mess hall unnoticed failed completely. Standing at the beverage replicator was Elton Cameron, the mission’s chief engineer and one of only twelve registered cyborgs in GalaxyPol. Crawford couldn’t help noticing Elton’s optical extensions as they pivoted in his direction. Despite his empathy for the inherited blindness that these ingenious devices corrected, the sight of them made him glad he still hadn’t eaten.
“You’ve no doubt seen the … event,” he said. “My personal theory? That flaming planet, the whole phenomenon, can be explained by data ghosts.”
Though Crawford knew exactly what the tall, pale-skinned, red-haired cyborg meant, he couldn’t help smiling at the thought of a team of “data ghosts” holding a seminar on the topic.
“It registered on every monitor and sensor readout on the ship in real time,” he said. “That’s a pretty massive piece of fraud.”
But as Elton explained, he believed that a thorough analysis was needed to weed out interference from the surrounding solar system.
“Until then, we can’t even judge the scale of the thing,” said Elton.
“Help me out here,” said Crawford. “Help me understand how a little violent incursion of a planet from another universe is an improvement over a big one.”
“Just as a measure of our moment-to-moment risk,” said the cyborg. “Like whether we have time to pull away if a bigger object comes through.” A series of beeps sounded from the handheld sticking out of his back pocket. “Gotta go.”
Crawford watched the engineer lope out of the mess hall on his long legs. What bigger object, he wondered, did Elton have in mind? By now, the replicator had materialized an edited version of the cheese-covered corn chips he’d ordered.
“Request denied, based on current health profile and mission requirements,” said the replicator’s snippy machine voice. In place of Crawford’s order was a generous array of carrot strips, celery stalks, red pepper and a dollop of what he suspected must be low-fat mayonnaise.
Nice to know they’re so concerned, he thought.
He sighed deeply and decided against using his officer-grade override code. Better to save it, he reasoned, for a stiff drink before bed. The way things were going, he figured he might need it. But what about Elton’s comment? Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gwendolyn Tanby, the mission’s lead mathematician stumbling up to him, with one had pressed tight against her forehead and the other clutching a translucent pill bottle. Her ash blonde hair pulled back into a bobbed ponytail, she wore a pained expression etched by migraine.
“Saw you talking to Elton,” she said. “Did he mention his data ghosts?”
“At least he’s not shy,” said Crawford. “But now that I think of it, his suspicions remind me of a lecture I heard from the Skelanese team leader. There was a phrase that kept coming up: ‘Reifying the information cloud.’ Does that mean anything to you?”
“Maybe,” she said. “Unless your translation grid was busted. A couple of fringe groups — quasi religious nuts, really — at my University were saying that’s how God created the universe. You know, by turning an idea, as in pure information, into baryonic matter, light, energy, and so on.”
“Magic wand?” asked Crawford.
Gwendolyn squeezed her green eyes shut.
“Who knows?” she said.
“You didn’t answer my question,” said Crawford. “Nut jobs aside, is there any part of the phrase ‘reified information’ that has a basis in … in mathematics, for starters.”
Gwendolyn shuffled over to a water cooler to the left of the replicators. She fumbled around for a plastic cup as if she were blind, filled it, snapped open her pill bottle and took two orange gel caps with water.
“What are you … you saying?” she asked through a cloud of pain. “You think mathematics isn’t real? It’s all about reality.”
“Didn’t mean that,” said Crawford. “Just want to know if I should bother to open my old journals.”
Gwendolyn sighed, as if, perhaps, her pills had started to work.
“It’s possible,’ she said. “Skelanese STEM is at least a thousand cycles ahead of ours. Or it was, until they disappeared. I’d like to see your notes, if you don’t mind.”
“You going to be OK?” he asked.
“I’m used to it,” said Gwendolyn. “I don’t suppose the Skelanese had a cure?”
“They told me they’d completely rewired their genome about a twelve-hundred cycles ago,” said Crawford. “That pretty much cured everything, I guess.”
“Must be nice,” said Gwendolyn. “Send me that data when you can.”
She flashed a weak smile and headed out of the mess hall with an unsteady gait. Crawford picked up his unwelcome platter of healthy food and left soon after. On his way back to his quarters he couldn’t stop thinking about the Skelanese quest for genomic perfection. Had their systematic “cleansing” of gene-related illness, deformities and other irregularities produced a species so unfettered by personal trauma that it effectively lacked the gene for humility?
Maybe that would explain the burst of overconfidence that had led them to brush aside the inherent complexity of mucking around with space time on such a massive scale. Or had they led themselves to their fatal error through a series of painstaking, incremental steps, each embedded with the same fatal flaw?
What did they miss? he asked himself, as he stepped into the lift leading up to his quarters.
His memory of Djaleerin was clear. She had never cut corners by adopting vague generalizations “for the sake of argument.” She also never indulged in pet theories simply because they appealed to her preferred worldview. As far as he could see, the rest of the Skelanese were the same. So whatever triggered the massive cosmic screw-up he’d been sent to investigate, it must have grown out of a carefully cultivated chain of logic. But what variable had the mysterious aliens forgotten to consider?
For better or worse, that worrisome train of thought was cut short the moment the lift doors opened, and he looked left, down the corridor. Leaning against the wall next to his door was Dulcey Shear, her arms wrapped tight around a quantum data reader.
“There you are,” she said. “I didn’t want to set this down and risk getting dust in it, but my arms are killing me.”
Crawford hurried toward her. What, he wondered, could have driven her to lug such heavy equipment without checking to see if he was in?
“Don’t tell me Arielle is too cheap to spring for a pair of gravity modulators,” he said when he caught up to her. Within seconds, he’d set down his mess hall platter, taken charge of the twenty-kilo device, opened his right eye for his door jam’s retina scanner and led the way into his quarters. Dulcey picked up the platter, followed him and unselfconsciously munched on one of his carrots.
“You’re so funny,” said Dulcey. “Everybody knows gravity modulators interfere with quantum switches. Throws off the two-state electron pairs completely.”
“Yeah,” said Crawford. “I was just … testing you. Sit down and I’ll get you a cup of caffedrine if you like. Can I assume you found something?”
“Yes on the finding, no on the caffedrine,” said Dulcey. “That stuff is hard on your liver. Tell me you don’t drink it too often.”
“OK,” said Crawford. “I won’t tell you that. What have you got?”.
Her face lit up by a bright smile, the young data wizard set up the quantum reader on a small table in the middle of Crawford’s main room and synched it to the large monitor at his personal workstation on the far wall. While she was busy, Crawford hurried to shut his bedroom door, knowing full well what an inchoate mess his belongings were in.
“Here, Dr. Caldera,” said Dulcey, “take a look at what I found.”
Though Crawford secretly wished she’d stop calling him “doctor,” which made him feel older than the Crab Nebula, he realized it was an essential part of earning her respect — to the extent that such a thing was still possible.
“You asked me to look for energy anomalies associated with both sides of the space folding process,” she said. “Well, here you go. You see that?”
Crawford’s blank expression was all Dulcey needed to launch into a detailed explanation of her findings. As it turned out, over the past decade, scenarios like the one Djaleerin had described eight years earlier had occurred in approximately one-in-fifteen-hundred space folds.
“But here’s the interesting part,” said Dulcey. “The ‘static’ you predicted appears in the form of protons ripped from cosmic dust during the space fold process. Most of the time, it amounts to less than nothing. The protons appear and then they’re gone — no big deal — just like you’d expect.”
“Yes,” said Crawford. “I’ve learned not to expect much from protons.”
Dulcey broke out in a broad grin and stared down at her light brown, ankle-length boots.
“I never know when you’re kidding,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter. You’re just so funny. What I mean is, once in a while, a burst of protons lingers longer than average and — don’t call me crazy — it’s like they’re trying to jump from their universe into ours.”
“You mean like salmon spawning?” asked Crawford.
“Who knows?” said Dulcey. “But when they do, the ship exiting the fold — it undergoes momentary stresses, like it’s, I don’t know … like it’s being ripped up by an earthquake. Except we’re still talking about nanoseconds. But I wonder….”
“Let me guess,” said Crawford. “If the Skelanese figured out how to prolong that proton burst, they could make a Hell of a spatiotemporal rift.”
“Sure, maybe,” she said. “But how? That’s the question, isn’t it?”
Crawford looked away and wondered what good it would do to “know how.” If Arielle’s team barely knew what started the process, how could they reverse it? Then his memory dredged up Djaleerin’s voice from one of their last conversations, saying something like:
You’ll never know how right you are until you know how wrong you were.
The phrase had sounded more philosophical at the time, but the message was the same. He turned back to his bright-eyed, enthusiastic assistant and said:
“What if you trained that brain of yours on the sensor data that GalaxyPol has picked up from the Skelana system, starting a few months before the Skelanese disappeared? Think you could detect a … prolongation … like the one you just described?”
“Only if it’s there,” said Dulcey. “Just kidding. I think that’s a great idea. It’s so good, I’m afraid of what we might find.”
“The truth is all we’re after,” said Crawford. “Try to run from it now and it will catch up to you later — looking an awful lot like that flaming planet.”
To be continued…. Read Episode 4 here.
A new Episode of A Slight Miscalculation will appear every other Monday. See all episodes here.
Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.
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