A Slight Miscalculation, Episode 4: New SF by Mark Laporta

[Editor’s Note: Read the Story from the Beginning]

Three days into his surprise mission for GalaxyPol, Crawford Caldera watched the data feed from Sky Rock’s Nav-AI on his workstation monitor, as the mid-sized ship reached the outskirts of the Skelana system. It was now only a few hours before the ship reached the system’s expansive asteroid belt. Soon after, Crawford would crawl back out onto a rocky surface he hadn’t seen in nearly a decade. For a man who’d become accustomed to the comfort of a magnificently ergonomic home, that was a scary prospect. 

His only consolation was that GalaxyPol’s nanobot regimen had finally started to take hold. While he was still far from the ideal of a “lean fighting machine,” he no longer worried that an extra-vehicular jaunt on an asteroid would pop a tendon or blow out a heart valve. Besides, he reminded himself, the reddish-brown johlantra suit he’d received from the Skelanese would also improve his odds of returning to the ship unscathed. 

Not only was it made of a complex material unknown to human science, but it was designed, apparently, to interact with his metabolism and keep his vital signs in the “green zone.” It had something to do, he surmised, with the millions of sensors woven into the suit’s novel synthetic fiber, which resulted in a surface that resembled the tight array of taste buds that dotted the human tongue.

Though the suit included no defensive weapons, Crawford had taken the precaution of slipping the miniature holographic projector that he’d used to torment Arielle, when they first met, into a small pouch built into the suit’s left arm. Like every other Skelanese device, it was voice-activated. Now that it was integrated into the encounter suit, the projector would pick up his commands through the suit’s collapsible, hood-like helmet.

But none of that was enough to dampen his mounting anxiety about what he might find. Despite his limited knowledge of engineering, the schematics that Djaleerin had absent-mindedly left on her workstation screen from time to time had made a lasting impression on him. Whatever the Skelanese had built in the hollowed-out asteroid he’d created for them was bound to be a thing of daunting complexity and power. Would one slip of his ungraceful feet trigger a cascade of cosmic disasters?

Try not to wet yourself, he thought. 

If his experience with the Skelanese had taught him anything, it was that they worked out every technical detail with excruciating precision. He’d more likely burn himself on one of the Sky Rock’s replicators than wreak havoc with the mystery device he was about to examine. Djaleerin, he remembered, had called it a kreljebtra. At some point, he told himself, he’d have to dig up his Skelanese/Standard dictionary and look into the origins of that word. 

Just in case, he sent a joint text to the entire team, which offered up that factoid for what it was worth. Could it offer a clue to the purpose it served? Maybe an old school linguist at the Mars Collective might make something out of it. Though truth be told, no one was quite sure that the descendants of the first human extraterrestrial colonists hadn’t shaded off into a type of science-inflected mysticism. 

In the meantime, there were reams of data for Arielle Chaplin’s team to analyze, regarding the relative stability of the solar system they were entering. In daily briefing sessions and even in casual, hallway conversation, the topic came up repeatedly. And as their analysis brought the situation into ever-sharper focus, one thing became clear: If the Skelanese had actually weakened the boundary between their universe and a neighboring one, the Sky Rock would need an effective escape plan.

“Escape to where exactly?” was Gwendolyn Tanby’s constant question. No one could deny she had a point. Even skeptical Elton Cameron had come around to taking the matter more seriously, as he confided at breakfast the day before Crawford’s rocky expedition.

“Not looking so much like a ‘ghost in the data’ now,” said Elton. “Last night we saw evidence of micro- deflections across a cubic lightyear of space in the vicinity of the asteroid belt. Whatever’s generating these … gravity waves … or whatever, is keeping its distance from them.”

“Can’t blame it,” said Crawford. “But, honestly, I can’t see what these weird phenomena have to do with the Skelanese mission. They wanted easy access to other universes. Never said anything about tearing this one to shreds.”

“Hate to say this,” said Elton, “but we may be looking at hardware failure. Whatever the aliens built may have simply gone haywire or … or developed a mind of its own.”

As before, with Dulcey, Crawford’s puzzled expression triggered a mini-lecture from Elton, this time on the theory of “spontaneous sentience.” Given a device with enough computing power and a sufficiently independent sensor array, sentience might arise of its own out of the machine’s experience of the real world. Even, that is, if artificial intelligence programming or circuitry were not included in its original configuration. 

All the while, Crawford couldn’t help noticing how erratically the status lights on Elton’s cerebral implants had begun to flicker.

“You think the Skelanese kreljebtra might have gone rogue?” he asked. 

“Can’t rule it out, is all I’m saying,” said Elton. “I’d recommend you take a lase pistol or particle gun with you, if I thought that wouldn’t likely trigger more cosmic mayhem, depending on what you hit.”

Crawford snorted. 

“Me with a weapon,” he said. “Now you’re talking cosmic catastrophe.”

A crash of mess hall furniture in the near distance made both men whip their head around. There, sprawled out on the off-white tiles was Dulcey, gasping for breath, as if the wind had been knocked out of her. Crawford leapt out of his chair with uncharacteristic grace and rushed to her side as she started to sit up. 

“There you are,” she gasped. “I … sorry about this. But I found exactly what we’re looking for.”




Crawford’s eyebrows shot up as he helped her to her feet. His first thought was how grateful he was that her young body had most likely absorbed the shock of her fall.  In spite of his worries, he did his best to put a comic spin on the situation. If only to put himself at ease, he flipped his hands, palm up in the air. 

“No use getting killed over it, though, is it?” he asked. Dulcey gave him a sheepish look. 

“Good point,” she said. “Can I show you my data? Lucky me, I left my tablet in my quarters. Otherwise … smasheroo.”

Crawford shook his head and was startled when Dulcey insisted they reconvene in the ship’s computing bay. 

“We have to see how this plays out on a larger screen,” she said. “There’s too much detail to cram into a small frame.”

On his way out of the mess hall, Crawford checked the time on a readout embedded in the wall above the mess hall entrance. In twenty-four hours, he’d be inside the carved-out Skelanese asteroid. Would anything Dulcey told him count for a hill of beans by then? He found the nearest elevator bank that would take him down to Level 5 — where he’d yet to venture. 

As the door to the computing bay whooshed open, he was surprised to see Arielle waiting for him, her sour expression a harsh contrast to the room’s cheerful white, forest green and ochre décor. Sitting next to her was Saffron Davies, leader of Arielle’s physics team. Her intense, dark brown eyes stared out through a swoosh of black hair that concealed most of her face. 

“Don’t look so stunned, Mr. Caldara,” said Arielle. “I get called whenever anyone requests access to this bay.  It’s normally off limits. But when I saw it was Dulcey, I approved it. There she is now. This better be good. I have to account for every….”

“Sorry to take so long,” said Dulcey. “Hi, Agent Chaplin. I hope this won’t be too boring for you.”

Arielle glared at her.

“I’m not easily bored, Ms. Shear,” said Arielle. 

“Of course not, Sorry,” said Dulcey. “I’m just so excited by what I found.”

“I hope this is worth it,” said Saffron. “I have reams of my own data to analyze. You know, actual data.”

Dulcey stared at Saffron a moment, before rushing over to a central workstation, connecting her tablet to the Sky Rock’snetwork interface and entering a command string at lightning speed. Crawford, Arielle and even Saffron were startled to see a vibrant, pulsating image appear on the computer bay’s expansive holoscreen. 

“Mind explaining yourself?” asked Arielle. 

Dulcey winked at Crawford and summarized their recent speculations about the Skelanese project and the likely function of the kreljebtra they built in the Skelana asteroid belt. After a tentative nod from Arielle, she started a video that her computer-modeling software had created that morning. 

“We were looking for evidence of extra-universal proton migration,” she said. “I’ve checked space lane logs across each of the major colonial routes and there’s nothing. But this is what I found in the Skelana system.”

Crawford’s eyes widened as the simulation showed a steady, ongoing exchange of particles in both directions, plummeting in and out of what appeared to be a dark chasm. 

 “The kreljebtra is doing that?” asked Arielle. “Craters, this is much worse than I thought. How … extensive … is this?”

“I know what you mean, Agent Chaplin,” said Dulcey, “but that isn’t the right question. This phenomenon isn’t like mold or rust or anything at the macro level that creeps over the surface of a solid object. It’s more like a tendency. It’s not so much that proton migration is happening in so many places, but that it can happen at any moment.”

“Clever girl,” said Saffron. “But simulations like this leave a lot to be desired. ‘Plausibility’ and ‘probability’ are two separate words — for a reason.”

“I’m sure you’re right, Dr. Davies,” said Arielle. “But until your analysis is complete, this is what we have to work with. And time, you have to admit, is running out. Or don’t you worry about getting swallowed by an alternative universe?”

Saffron slapped her palms down on her thighs and stood up. 

“Fine,” she said. “Ms. Shear’s speculations are noted. I’ll let you know if they pan out, which I doubt. For one thing, she has no predictive model, at least that I’ve heard. Kind of important really.”

The others watched her stalk out of the computer bay in silence, though the lopsided smile on Crawford’s lips spoke volumes.

“Nobody likes being scooped, I guess,” he said. “But is she right, Dulcey? You haven’t found a pattern, an array that the kreljebtra might generate that would help us know where it will strike next?”

“Maybe if we could get a more zoomed out view,” said Dulcey. “Trouble is, it’s hard to monitor submicroscopic phenomena over a large distance. Besides, as Dr. Davies pointed out, everything I’m showing you now is just … extrapolation. We can’t actually see anything.”

“You should be able to see the effect it’s having, though,” said Arielle. “What if we replicated a steady stream of small, space worthy drones and shot them out into the Skelana solar system. Wouldn’t some of them have to bump into your wandering protons?”

“That might work,” said Crawford, “but we should get the astro team to weigh in. If Dulcey’s right, we might only have days to sort this out before this ‘space disease’ leaps to another galaxy.”

“I’ve already sent this simulation to Elton and the others,” said Arielle. “I do my best thinking when I’m bored. Dulcey, you’ll turn all of your data over to the rest of the team immediately. And you, Mr. Crawford, you’d better start getting ready for your asteroid walk tomorrow. I’m sending 6N7 along to keep you out of trouble, whatever happens. But he’ll need time to acclimate to your speech patterns and you’ll need to learn how to give clear commands.”

Crawford sighed. As if his upcoming foray weren’t stressful enough, he’d have to put up with a snippy android dog. 

“If you insist,” he said. “Though if that little bastard gets in my way, he’ll get a boulder shoved down his throat.”

“Very colorful,” said Arielle. “6N7 would cost you about fifteen million credits to replace. What account should I charge that to?”

To be continued …. Read Episode 5 here.


A new Episode of A Slight Miscalculation appears 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.

Image design by Steven S. Drachman, from an original photograph by Mikhail Nilov / Pexels