Saturday, June 22, 2024

Expelled: Explanted (Part I)

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Elder Caverness was being blackmailed. He didn’t know how, but this stranger knew everything about his past. They knew where he had been. They knew what he had done. He was a war criminal, on the run from an authority who may not even exist. The Extremus was the best place for him to hide, because it was so random and inconsequential. That was the whole purpose of the mission, to travel so far from civilization that it no longer interacted with anyone else. He would die on this ship, safe from his past. But the stranger could ruin that. He wasn’t afraid of being found out by someone on this ship per se, but if the truth came out, it could get back to someone who really could get him in trouble. The blackmailer wanted him to do something that he shouldn’t. The Captain asked him to create a device that could transport any passenger back to the launch point, on the day of launch. There were those here who wished they had never come aboard, and this was their chance to undo that mistake. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what this device would do. It would instead banish them to the nearest sufficiently massive terrestrial planet. It didn’t even need to have an atmosphere. The blackmailer just wanted Captain Yenant to be on it. They must have had plans for him, though, because if they just wanted the Captain dead, it would be much easier to program the device to teleport him to interstellar space. Why did it have to be a planet?
There was a knock on the door. Elder didn’t use any cameras, or anything. He was the smartest engineer on the whole vessel, but he still liked to do some things the old school ways. He opened it to find a stranger. Whether it was the same person who was coercing him to do all this was still in question. They never met face to face.
“I’m your blackmailer.” Well, that answered that question. “Did you do what I asked? The Captain will be getting impatient. I calculated an 83% chance that he reaches his breaking point with you today, and that could result in him giving up on this project entirely. That cannot happen.”
Elder slipped his gloves back on, and showed the stranger what he had created. He couldn’t touch it with his bare hands, or he would become one of its victims. Pulling the string, and pressing the button activated it, but anyone who ever came into contact with it would succumb to it. “No, don’t,” he cried when the stranger reached for it.
“Oh, did you think that I wasn’t going on the trip?” He smirked, and took the transporter from Elder. “That’s the whole point, my friend.” He twirled it in his hands, and then handed it back. I calculate a 97% chance that he will use this between forty and fifty-five minutes after receiving it. Please message me when he takes it.”
“What if I can’t get him to touch it?” Elder asked.
“Do whatever you can.” That was odd. Getting rid of Halan Yenant seemed to be this man’s entire motivation. If that wasn’t actually the case, what was he really after?
Shortly after the blackmailer left the room, the Captain did come to check on his progress, and he did retrieve what he believed to be the recall device, but he did not touch it personally. He instead ordered his lieutenant, Rita Suárez to take hold of it. They were suspicious of him right away. Elder should have been cooler about it. He was a pretty good actor. This was absolutely not the first time he had gone undercover. It used to be his entire job. But maybe that was okay, because again, the man who made him do this didn’t seem to care one way or the other anymore. He appeared to be obsessed with probability, so maybe he knew that Halan would touch it eventually, or maybe he wanted Rita to be transported all along, and the best way to make that happen was to pretend that Halan was his target. Elder was pretty smart, but he had no illusions about whether it was possible for someone to outthink or outshine him. He was too old for that, though perhaps not as old as everyone believed. They all called him Old Man because he wanted them to; because it was easier to hide this way.
Rita wasn’t the only one who touched the device, though. Due to their suspicion, they forced Elder himself to place hands upon it as well. He had to find a way to take himself out of the queue. After the Captain and Lieutenant were gone, he got back to work. He ran over to the sink, and started scrubbing his hands vigorously with soap and water. There was a coating on the device, which left a residue on any holder’s skin. Elder had created it, but using a formula that the blackmailer provided. Surely it would come off if you knew that it was there, and worked hard to get rid of it. Right? Maybe not. He kept scrubbing and scrubbing, but his autodermatologist kept detecting a foreign substance. It was still there. He kept scrubbing, but it was just wasting time. The transporter was going to spirit—or maybe it wouldn’t. He threw his watch around his wrist, and activated the regular teleporter. He kept jumping all over the room. Maybe flooding his skin with temporal energy would get rid of the residue. After all, this energy didn’t usually just stay on you forever. It would dissipate, and in this case, hopefully remove anything related from his hands. No, the autoderma still read positive. Shit. There really was no hope. He only had one choice left.
He grabbed his emergency evacuation bag. It was called a Harsh Environment Survival Kit, and they were standardized in this time period in Earth’s stellar neighborhood. Once people started traveling to the stars, researchers came up with something called SCR&M, which stood for Safety, Compartmentalization, Redundancy, & Modularization. Bags like this one were designed to protect against any eventuality, such as having to abandon ship. Older time periods referred to it as a go-bag. Obviously, it could be tailored to one’s specific needs, but there were some strong recommendations, like shelter, air, water, and food. The one that Elder built for himself was unique, and filled with technology that not everyone in the universe even knew existed, like this teleporter gun, which...didn’t have much charge left, but it would do. And most Heskits had collapsible toilets, but this one here led to a pocket dimension, which was of vital importance to Elder’s sanity. He quickly checked inventory, and then disappeared.
His personal teleporter wasn’t able to send him directly into the Hock section, but he was able to get close, and then break in using more traditional means. They were just in an interrogation room, so it wasn’t like he had to make it deep into the belly of the beast. The problem was, he didn’t really know how much time he had left. He reached the door, and could see them through the little window. It was Captain Yenant, Lieutenant Suárez, a fellow genius named Omega Parker, and an awful woman who everyone hated so much, they just called her Airlock Karen. There was no telling how many of them had touched the device. The entire crew could have played a sports game with it by now. Elder would not be able to save the lives of all those people, but he might be able to protect this small group here. That was assuming he couldn’t just stop them from activating it in the first place, which was the ultimate goal. He started banging on the glass. “Stop! I couldn’t wash my hands! It’s not good enough! Don’t push the button, button is bad!”
The group noticed him, but didn’t get up to open the door for more information.
“Don’t push that button!” he urged desperately.
While Halan and Rita were talking, probably trying to decide how to react to this development, Airlock Karen snatched the device from the table, and gave herself some room. Before anyone could stop her, she pulled the string, and pressed the button.
Elder had thought about putting on his suit and helmet, but there was no time. Luckily, the vacuum tent was designed to open and reseal quite quickly. He could have saved himself with little issue, but he wasn’t the only one in danger here. Of course, Airlock Karen came with him, as did Rita. No one else did, though, so Halan had never touched it, and neither had Omega. It was just the three of them. He pointed his teleporter gun at the both of them, calibrated it for the mass of two bodies, and summoned them to his position. He tugged on the string to expel the tent, which enveloped them like a Venus flytrap, wrapping them up completely. The valve on the emergency air tank opened on its own as well, and began to fill the space with a breathable atmosphere. They weren’t out of the woods yet, though. The ladies had passed out already, because they did not expect any of this to happen, but Elder was about to suffer from the same fate. He retrieved the dermal wand from the pack, and flashed it against his neck. He felt immediate relief, but his body still needed time to absorb the nanococktail. He gave Rita and Airlock Karen their own flashes, then let himself pass out next to them.
He awoke later to someone shaking him at the shoulders. He blinked, coughed, and checked his watch. It hadn’t been that long, so the tank had plenty left in it to keep them alive until he could get the carbon scrubber working. “Report,” Rita demanded.
“I screwed up,” Elder answered.
“Ya think?” Karen asked sarcastically.
“I’ll explain everything. Right now, we need to solve our immediate issue, which is air.” He reached into his bag to take out the scrubber, and the tablet. He handed Rita the latter. “Here, interface with the tent. Make sure there are no leaks or vulnerabilities.”
“Wait, where are we?” she pressed. When Elder just gave her a harsh look, she sighed, and did as she was told, because it was the only logical next step. They could talk and work at the same time.
“I don’t know where we are. We’re wherever the Extremus was when she pushed that blasted button.”
“Oh this is my fault?”
“Partially, yeah. I literally told you to not do it. Did you think that maybe there was some reason for that, and that I wasn’t just high and confused?”
“I don’t know who you are, or what power you yield. Maybe you were the admiral, who could have stopped Halan from letting me go home.”
“Vice Admiral Perran Thatch isn’t Halan’s boss. He’s an advisor.”
“Well, whatever.”
“Old Man,” Rita began, “why are we here?”
“Someone made me do this. I thought he was trying to remove Yenant from the equation, but now I’m thinking that he wanted all three of us to be here instead. He’s smart. He’s real smart. He knew things that he shouldn’t have known. About me.”
“Halan was always suspicious of you. No one knows where you come from, or who gave you the job that you had.”
“I gave it to myself. I’m good with computers.”
“How do we get back to the ship?” Rita asked him.
“We’ll worry about that later,” Elder insisted.
“Later is too late,” Karen argued. “The ship will be out of range by then.”
“Extremus travels two light years every day,” Elder volleyed. “It’s well out of range already. I didn’t want to put the horse before the cart by explaining the long-term goal so soon, but our only hope of returning is to go back in time, which will...take time.”
“I never understood that,” Rita said, almost getting comfortable here, but still checking for leaks. “Why does it seem like it’s easier to go back in time than to go faster than light? The reframe engine has a maximum speed, but couldn’t someone build something that surpasses it? Aren’t they basically the same thing?”
“The difference is that the power required to travel through time scales linearly with mass, and distance from egress to ingress. Faster-than-light travel, on the other hand, scales exponentially from a high starting value. All current theoretical designs demand types of power generation that we do not yet have. A hypothetical ship with true FTL would probably have to be gigantic from the onset, and the more you want to pack on it, the more powerful the power source has to be. It suffers from similar downsides as the rocket equation. You want more payload, you need more fuel. To add more fuel, you need a bigger ship. You got a bigger ship, you need more fuel. It’s a vicious cycle that a time machine would have no trouble with. That’s not to say that building one will be easy. Back on Extremus, I had resources. Here, we’re tied to what I was able to carry in my bag, and whatever is here on this world.”
“I don’t suppose there’s enough for all three of us,” Rita reasoned.
He looked between the two of them. “The pack is made with one survivor in mind, but we can stretch it out if we’re careful.” He finished engaging the carbon scrubber, so he hung it up near the ceiling, and took the tablet back to interface with it too. “We’ll have to ration food, and really be careful about how we recycle our waste, but we should be okay. Water is our main concern as it’s the most difficult to insulate from leakage. We will be drinking our own urine for a while.”
“We do that anyway,” Airlock Karen said dismissively.
“Not like this,” Elder said with a heavy sigh. “The miniature filters we’re limited to don’t do much for the taste. But I think I can program the dayfruit seeds to produce extra sugar to mask the taste a little.” Dayfruit was a genetically engineered food that someone came up with centuries ago. It weighed about five pounds, and could provide a single person’s entire nutritional needs for one day. Under ideal circumstances, one took about a week to grow, but to conserve water, they would have to lengthen the growing period intentionally.
Rita sighed and looked around at their new prison. A lone survivor could go a bit crazy in the limited space, so the three of them should be total maniacs within only a few weeks. “I need an inventory of everything that we have on hand. After that, you’ll need to come up with a survival plan with extension contingencies. Once you’re done with those, start working on the escape plan. I’m not going to give you a time limit for when we need to be back on Extremus, but I will tell you that the answer is not never. Debra, I see you. It’s not his job to get you home. Gatewood is far too far away to worry about right now. So while he’s working on his assignments, and I’m setting up the dayfruit grower hourglasses, it will be your job to shut up. Do you think you can handle that?”
There was a knock on the tent.

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