Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Away Team

You never get used to it. That creepy slide-to-the-left of quantum shifting. On the ship one second, on the planet the next. Like a bad splice in one of those old …
Captain Bavard started talking to himself. Out loud.
“Captain’s Blog, Worldline 6570309.7. We’ve shifted to the surface of Heaven-17. The away team consists of myself, the chief engineer, the ship’s physician and PKD1, the most intelligent, artificial, sentient head in the known universe. So far, there are no sign of hostiles.”
“Who the hell are you talking to?”
An echoing voice, location indeterminate. Hostile. Unmistakably hostile.
The away team took cover behind rocks, set blasters to fricassee.
“Analysis. What …”
“Hey, cap’n….”
That irritating voice again.
“Enough with the analysis. I asked you a question, baldy. Who the hell …”
“I remember the question! The answer is, uh. I’m talking to my audio recorder. It's a personal record. They call it a ‘blog.’ I’m not sure why.”
“You say so.”
“I do say so! As a Star Squad commanding officer, I maintain a continual running account of my daily tactical and strategic decisions—and the reasoning behind them. My record of events is simulcast via quantum link to a recorder on the Starship Avis. A duplicate record is etched to a ‘black box’ carbon nanocube embedded in my left back molar.”
“Why go to so much trouble?”
“Well, for historical reasons. We, uh. Learn from our mistakes.”
“Who’s ‘we’…?”
“Star Squad! We learn, sir! It is our way!”
“Could’ve fooled me.”
“Witty retort! Your point being?
“You’re disposable, schmuck.”
PKD1 stirred.
“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane,” it said.
Immediately following this observation, the Sludge Entity emerged from behind the granite outcropping and nearly stomped the away team flat. But thanks to sheer luck and Quantum Shift Chief Bevan’s last minute thinking, they emerged unscathed in the shift chamber.
Discretely adjusting his unitard, the Captain resumed his place on the bridge.
“Take us home, Number Two.”
“Kansas, sir?”
“Kansas it is. Engage!”

Captain's Blog, Worldline 6570879.1. We’ve shifted five kilometers below the surface of Kime, the second moon of Tau Ceti VI, the fourth planet of the Tau Ceti solar system and
home to the original Conglomeration colony. Our away team consists of myself, PKD1 and Dr. Mark Edmund, Star Squad’s most eminent specialist in sleep disorders. His patient on this mission is a sentient computer. In machine terms, it’s responsible for environmental control in this system. In human terms, that intelligence is still a child—a child who has fallen asleep. Its unquiet dreams are causing havoc on all seven inhabited worlds. Should the child’s dreams turn to nightmare, the loss of life would be incalculable. Our task is to gently wake this child. And not lose our own lives in the process.

The away team emerged in a corridor of shifting light. Wasting no time, Dr. Edmund ran his hands along the machine interface. His eyes rolled back in his head when the implants kicked in. The good doctor merged with the non-human intelligence and began speaking with his patient. From the Captain’s perspective, it was a one-sided conversation.
“Yes ... yes I know you’re angry.” Pause. “I’d be angry, too.”
This was going to take awhile. If a Conglomeration-level diplomatic decision was called for, he’d intervene. In the meantime, there was little to do.
“Hey! Cap’n Rogaine!”
There it was again.
“Yeah. I’m baaaaack. Remember me?”
“Sadly, I do. The irritating sarcastic voice from behind the rock.”
“That’s me, baby. I’m in the walls this time. You fucking say ‘ghost in the machine’ I’ll find a way to make you suffer. So. Where were we?”
“Kime, the second moon of …”
“Not 'where are we,' cue ball. 'Where were we. In the discussion.”
“You accused me of being disposable.”
“Yes, I did. You want to tell me you’re not?”
“No. I mean yes. Yes, I am not disposable.
 The lambent corridor shook.
“Yes,” soothed Dr. Edmund. “I know it sucks. But you need to come out of this fantasy and face reality.”
Another shock.
“I suppose they do say that,” mumbled the doctor. “That doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
“You look pretty disposable to me, pal,” said the ghost.
“I’m a Star Squad captain! The Captain of the Starship Avis!”
“Yeah. Captain. VIP. Glad you mentioned that. Week after week, Star Squad sends out important guys like you on 'away missions like this. Has that ever struck you as improbable?”
“The fact that you’re here in the first place.”
A ghostly sigh.
“You’re the captain of a starship, stupid. Why, exactly, would Star Squad send you out on a dangerous mission in which, chances are, you’ll wind up dead? On top of that... Why send this high and mighty doctor and the talking head along with you?”
“Well… because we’re the most qualified for the mission!”
“Yeah. If Star Squad could afford the risk, that’s true. So how do they afford it?”
“By …by being extra careful every time!”
A violent shock, this time.
The eyes in the cybernetic head opened and looked around. The lips spoke.
“The sleeper wakes,” said the head.
“I knew you were gonna say that, Dickhead,” said the ghost. Chummy tone. The insultingly affectionate words one might say to an old friend. Or rival. How was that possible?
PKD1 was an early cybernetic replica of the head of Philip K. Dick—a deceased, twentieth-century science fiction writer known for vague Gnostic notions and a knack for twist endings. Said head was lost in an airport baggage claim in the early twenty-first century and popped up on the dark side of the moon two centuries later. It had since been upgraded. This ghost showed an odd familiarity to the head. Had they met? Had he met the original?
But there was not the time for speculation.
The next temblor was a bucking bronco ride.
“Don’t worry, cap’n,” said the ghost. “You’ll get out of it. Somehow.”
“No single thing abides,” said the dead writer’s simulated head. “And all things are fucked up.”  
“Damnit,” said the Captain. This isnt helping, Dick! Next time, I’m bringing Borges!
The shocks increased in severity and frequency and merged into one. An alarm screamed.
“Planetary collapse in ten seconds,” said a voice from the walls.
“He’s waking,” said the psychologist. “But I need more time.”
“Planetary collapse in five seconds,” said the voice.
And the planet, indeed, collapsed. Technically, the moon. 
The Captain and the noted psychologist stood on the Starship Avis bridge, watching the collapse unfold on the scanner. The moon below became an angry, fractured wound of molten rock. A riven, ruined world. Clearly, a new environmental control system would be required within the week. But their mission had been a success. From the rivulets of liquid rock, a being of light emerged and entered a dimension beyond human thought. It gave them the finger before it vanished.
“The child has become a man,” said the psychologist.
“Technically speaking, a teenager,” said the Captain. 
“The transition is always awkward.”
“I remember, doctor. I remember.”
They shared a laugh.
“Wine and cheese in the stateroom?” said the Captain.
They set forth.
“So how the hell did we get out of there, the doctor wondered.
“Bevan,” the Captain said vaguely. “Bevan pulled something off.”

Captain's Blog, supplemental. Worldline 6502134.1. On this covert mission, I am on my own in the dangerous, Worker Housing section in the slums of Zgnrkgdhx, the capitol city of the Xgnkt home world. I am here to meet Lucius, the last surviving Philosopher King from the Qkgnty colonists who founded this world at the time Marco Polo first encountered the wonders of Xanadu on Earth. Lucius offers the last, best hope of bridging the centuries-old division between the fiery, impulsive warriors of Xgnkt and the cold, logical scientists of Qkgnty. Reuniting their species is an enormous hope. The enormous risk is worth it.
The Captain waited in the shadows of a hulking concrete structure. Someone came. But not Lucius.
“Hey, cap’n.”
“Oh, hell. It’s you again.”
Whispered words, of course. This was not the time for shouting.
“Me again,” said the ghost.
“I can see you.”
Evidently, the ghost felt that it was the time for shouting.
“Keep your voice down! This is a highly dangerous mission."
“My voice is in your head, stupid.” Really shouting now. “I can talk as loud as I want!”
Reflexively, the Captain clapped his hands to his ears.
“Fine! Who are you?”
“Jack Getz. A writer of cautionary tales.”
“Oh…Getz. Right. The science fiction writer.”
“Just writer.”
“I’ve heard of you, sir.”
“Have you read me?”
“No. Of course not. Nobody reads anymore. You people! You just jerk off in the Land of Make Believe.”
“We enjoy simulated experience in the MayaDeck, if thats what you mean.”
“Like I said, you jerk off.”
“You might be interested to know that “maya” derives from the Hindu word of illusion.”
“Yeah. And I might not. Listen, chrome dome. If you’d actually read any of my cautionary tales you wouldn’t be here.”
“Such as?”
“The one about quantum shifting.”
“Ah. A Luddite warning against the evils of technology, I presume? An evil that you, wise writer that you were, wisely avoided?”
“You’d think so, right?”
The Captain muttered.
“Damnit, Lucius should be here by now …”
The ghost snapped its fingers. Oddly, it made a sound.
“Hey, cap’n. While we’re on the subject. You know how I died? I wrote that story. Hugo-Award winner, blahbah. Then somebody actually built the fucking thing.” 
“The quantum shifter?” 
“Yeah. Transporter. Shifter. Trans-mat. Whatever the fuck you wanna call it...” 
“Some corporation, I forget. RedShift, some stupid name like that. Not important, OK? They wanted my fucking product endorsement, you believe it? Because of my scary story. Good publicity, like getting Bradbury to endorse your fucking mobile phone. Oh, Jack, it’s safe now. We worked out the kinks. We’ve sent hamsters through and everything. You can watch! Fuck the hamsters. They kept offering me money. Then more money. Asshole that I was, I finally gave in. I like money, OK? I stepped on the pad and that was it. Just like my story.”
“You gouged your eyes out?”
“Not that one. That’s Stephen King.”
“You turned into a human fly?”
“No. That’s the Cronenberg movie, adapted from the shitty Vincent Price movie. Cronenberg wrote the screenplay. George Langelaan wrote the original …Hey, the fucking thing scattered me across Hawking Space, OK?”
“Do I look like a quantum physicist?”
“Not really.”
“No. But I’m a writer. Polymath, OK? Based on my many scraps of outdated knowledge and amazing powers of bullshit, my best guess is that every space-shift event creates a bubble of indeterminacy. A bubble shows up, I show up. Like a fucking ghost, or one of your MayaDeck characters.”
“And now you’re stuck. In your own private hell?”
“Yes and no. I’m stuck here until this bubble dissipates, dissipates, which usually takes a few hours.
The ghost frowned. Reacting to something.
“I … Ah, shit. Save it ‘til next time, Kojack. And read my fucking story.”
The ghost vanished. A cloaked figure emerged from the shadows in its place. Yet again, it wasn’t Lucius. One of the fiery, impulsive warriors, obviously.
“Greetings, Captain," said the figure. “Lucius has been detained, I’m afraid. Indefinitely. He sends his regrets. As do I. One warrior to another.”
The figure smiled.
A blaster gleamed in his hands.
The Captain emerged on the quantum shift chamber.
Bevan studied him. 
“Ah, Cap’n. Thank God and Texas Instruments we shifted you out of there in the nick of time!”
“Yes. Yes, indeed. Good work, Bevan. Your Welsh engineering skills have saved me yet again.”
“Fancy a bottle of leek wine?”
“No. Not this time, my friend. I think I shall retire to my quarters.”
“Doing what, if I may ask?”
“Reading,” said the Captain. “Catching up on my reading.”  
Bevan gave him the stink eye. 
But smiled.

Captain's Blog, supplemental. Worldline 68675309.9. I set forth on a mission on the unnamed world known as “Unnamed World” where my late predecessor first encountered the Time Elevator. That artifact is long since inoperative, or at least stuck between time floors, but the ruins of the abandoned iron city surrounding it remain. In my former life, I studied such ruins as an eager, young comparative xenoanthropology student. I am here to study them now. Alone. Purely for my own amusement.
The Captain shifted to the dead planet’s surface, and took a stroll around the iron ruins beneath a starless sky. The ghost of Jack Getz soon walked beside him.
“Bullshit with the ruins,” said the ghost.
“Bullshit indeed. A mere excuse.”
“Just you, this time?”
“Just me.”
“All alone. On an away mission with no danger whatsoever. That’s smart.”
“I wanted to talk.”
“So, talk. My story. You read it?”
“I did. Neither Here Nor There, I presume?”
A roar. Like the Monster from the Id in Forbidden  Planet. That kind of roar.
“Eaaaaaagggggh! That’s not my title! I hate that fucking title! The waterhead publishers changed my title!”
“I’m terribly sorry.”
Another insane roar.
If God had Wanted Man to Exist in Two Places at Once He Wouldn't Have Invented Roller Skates is the name of the story,” screamed the ghost. “That’s the title! That’s my title! That’s the only title! What else could it be?”
The ghost leapt up and down in an impotent, transparent rage that eventually subsided. Then finally asked …
“So. You read my story?”
“Yes, I did,” said the Captain. “I am forced to point out that your character’s fate was very different from your own.
If ghosts could gnash teeth, the late Jack Getz would be spitting dental work.
Being insubstantial, it simply smiled.
“Different how?”
“Your character was stuck. Some sort of limbo or something. You’re not stuck at all. I've seen you on several different planets.”
“You’re missing the whole point, Mr. Clean! No, I’m not stuck in any one bubble. I’m stuck in every bubble caused by every space-shift event. When there’s a bubble of space/time that’s here-and-not-here, I’m there. I’m in every fucking bubble at once and it’s a pain in the ass!”
“So it would be. And you’re alone.”
“Fuck your sympathy. I’m not alone.”
“Who’s with you?”
“Other ghosts. Redshirts. Low-ranking Star Squad crew. They pop in, pop out.”
“Nonsense. I see where you’re going, and that's –”
“Quantum shift accidents, OK?”
“Such accidents are rare!”
“Not that rare. ‘Such accidents’ are covered up.”
“There’s a flaw in your argument, sir.”
“There’s a fly in the ointment. What flaw?”
“You pointed it out yourself, actually.”
“Did I?”
“Yes, you did. You questioned my elite presence on dangerous away missions, did you not?”
“I did and didn’t not do. Shift to the fucking point.”
“Well. If, as you claim, quantum shifting is unsafe, why would Star Squad send its most valuable officers, scientists and philosophers into the shift chamber?”
“Cause it doesn’t, stupid. You’re disposable. Not like the grunts. You’re officer class. Too valuable to risk. So, Star Squad does the smart thing.”
“Which is what?”
“Make a disposable copy.”
“Perfect sense. What happens when somebody important makes the big shift? I’ll tell you what happens. You step on that pad, the thing scans you, then shifts a copy to the surface. The beam holds the real you in stasis while your copy does its thing. At the end of the away mission, the shiny machine downloads the memories of your Star Squad body double into your real, shiny head, then erases your duplicate like an embarrassing relative in an old photograph.”
“No!,” the Captain shouted. “It doesnt hold up!”
The ghost invited him to point out any inconsistencies in the theory.
“The apparent absence of any other ghosts?”
“If your mind stays focused, your ghost stays focused. I’m a writer, a good one. My mind is more focused than most. Your disposable crew members, not so much. They get lost in the signal noise.”
“The time difference?”
“Is explained by the stasis lock.”
“The quantum shift chief?”
“Is in on the fucking conspiracy, dumbass.”
“This is a very interesting story.”
“No shit. Ever wondered why you never die?”
“Excuse me?”
“On half of these away missions, you get sliced, diced, stomped, burned, vaporized, frozen, crystallized, smashed, pulverized, eaten, lobotomized, assimilated or reduced to protoplasm, OK? Except there’s always a last minute save …”
“That I can’t quite remember.”
“Bingo. The light dawns.”
The light, indeed, had dawned. His entire life had been a consistent betrayal. The Captain, the real Captain, took credit for many courageous acts. But these were the acts of murdered twins. A long line of murdered twins. He stood at the end of that line. An unpleasant truth. But truth, nonetheless. He couldnt run from it.
The unpleasant ghost kept beating the dead horse.
“You’re dead the second you shift back, pal,” it said. “Youre a fucking copy, expendable, disposable, a drone, a Waldo with legs. You get it now?”
“I get it. What do you want?”
“Not dying. Little late for that, I know. I’ll settle for lots of other people not dying, starting with you.”
“Thank you.”
“Go fuck yourself. I’m doing this on general principle. I’m a humanist, OK? That means I love humanity but hate people.”
“Not just people. The Conglomeration is home to many sentient beings.”
“OK, OK. I hate them, too.”
“What’s your solution?”
“Tell Star Squad to unplug that quantum shift shit and take the shuttle next time. It’s a ten-minute ride. What’s the goddamn hurry? But that’s gonna be a hard sell ... I don’t have to tell you. Hey, I know! We could blow the conspiracy, except there’s no fucking newspapers or TV stations any more, and all quantum communication runs through Star Squad.”
“Don't insult my intelligence.”
“Its not hard, baldy.”
“Facing reality is hard. Having faced it, I wont run from the fight. You know that, you irritating bastard. You knew it in advance. That’s why you chose me.”
“Yeah. That’s why.”
“Splendid. Now, if you wouldn’t mind, please save me your petulant sarcasm and tell me what you plan to do.”
“It’s complicated. First thing? Get under that iron slab before they ...”
And just like that, the Captain was gone. 
The ghost did an insane dance and said some very bad things.
But there was no one there to hear him. 

“Captain’s Blog, Worldline 6655321.2. I gotta go in a second, we’re holding the funeral for ... God, the dead Captain, he was a legend and I can't remember his ... On the top shelf! The computer can give me something to ... Keep looking! OK, I gotta go. Howabout I go first, you wait a minute? Because we can’t be seen leaving at the same time! Yeah I love you too ... kiss my ass, OK? No. Wait! I told you to ... Shit. Dismissed, yeoman! And there she ... Shit, shit, shit. This thing is still. OK. Guess I’ll clean this up later and make it sound more Captainy. I can edit this, right?
 Star Squad held the funeral on the wasted surface of Captain Bavard’s final resting place. The Unnamed World, which they might name Planet Bavard, or might not.
The Quantum Entity had lured the former Captain here. Then scrambled his quantum shift back to the Starship Avis for reasons that could never be explained. What emerged on the pad in the quantum shift chamber was, well, neither here nor there. This explained why the Captain’s coffin resembled an ancient Tupperware container. Although, mercifully, opaque.
PKD1 concluded his sermon. An angry ghost leaped and made rude gestures behind him. But the head pressed on.
According to the head, “We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups... So I ask, in my writing, ‘What is real?’ Because, unceasingly, we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.” 
The head was done. Eventually, the away team realized he was done.
The away team applauded.
That angry ghost was still doing its mad dance. The Entity, of course. It ranted. You fucking idiots. Your beloved fucking Captain knew too much. They killed him, get it? You’re next on the list. A volcano of mind-killing obscenities, not doubt. But the away team didn’t hear it.
Their earplugs kept them safe. Not literal earplugs. An encrypted communications filter. It allowed Star Squad personnel to speak to each other. They could even hear Bevan’s attempt to play “Amazing Grace” on the traditional Welsh pibgorn. A suppressor signal to the auditory center of the brain silenced all other unwanted voices.
The new, young Captain stepped up. He gently set the head of PKD1 aside. Well, not that gently. Then took the podium.
He looked out at the assembly. Radiating charisma, with just the right hint of sadness and respect. A nod to all. Then a quick wink to the shapely communications officer. She shifted like green jello in her chair. He smiled and launched into his eulogy for the old guy. Captain Whatsisname.
The new Captain had very good hair.

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