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- Special thanks to user Tomlija at FreeSound.org who created and/or recorded the sound effect used in this episode!
About the author…
Mark is an ex-rocket scientist with a doctorate in physics so has an unwitting talent for taking the magic out of twinkling stars, sunsets, colourful flames dancing in a roaring fire, and rainbows.
His medium term aims are to introduce other fathers to the world of creative storytelling, and to find his feet with short story writing. This will involve him having to appreciate that what he sees as funny does not always accord with other people’s points of view.
Christchurch, New Zealand has been his home for 10 years with all the ups and downs that entails.
Elias Smith and Jones
By Mark English
Every space in the four thousand seat lecture theatre was taken. Additional folk had snuck in to sit on the dark steps at the back. With everyone whispering discretely, the noise was deafening to the grizzled old-timer who stood leaning on the lecturn at the front—or it would have been except for the myPod player earbuds delivering their tinny frantic bluegrass tunes into his head. He chuckled to himself as he looked up at the wall of people in front of him. Political leaders, military leaders, space systems engineers; all desperate to hear the words of an aged ship’s monkey from the Frontier. All because he and his co-conspirators had blackmailed the solar system.
Elias chuckled to himself again. Who would have figured things would have turned out so? He plucked the ear buds out. Instant silence. The university had scored a coup in convincing one of the Sundance gang to tell their tale since any spaceway robbers were generally executed. However the Sundance gang had a thirty year old secret, one that everyone wanted. With the removal of the first earbud old Elias had indicated he was ready to start; all the spectators held their breath.
Elias turned his face up to the watchers, felt the bright lights warming his face, and smiled a toothy grin. “Howdy folks, I’m good an’ pleased to be here today, to see so many notables amongst you. Some I have met before.” A five star general shuffled uncomfortably in his seat as if the warm smile made him sweat—which it did. Elias continued in his soft southern-states patois. “We are gathered here today to hear a story, so let’s go back thirty years, back to when I was even more good lookin’. My partners and I had just obtained a large cargo of rare earth metals from an asteroid cargo waggon, and this had been mistak’n for a robbery. I guess after these years I gotta ‘fess up and say that it sure as hell was a robbery!” Elias leaned forward and grinned at the Sheriff-Admiral in the front row like he was about to lay a golden egg—which as history showed he had (in a manner of speaking). The Sheriff-Admiral returned a tight grimace filled with thirty years of difficult restraint.
Elias Earnbuckle leaned on his broom next to Captain Miriam Smith and Jones-the-gun as they looked through the rear viewing port. The star field was tremendous with Sol out of view. The nearest asteroids shone starkly black and white, with sunlight flooding them edge-on. However it was Mars that held their attention. Or more correctly, it was the glow from the foldspace-prow of the rapidly approaching sheriff’s pursuit boat with Mars as a back-drop, that garnered their attention.
Smith leaned her weight onto her left leg and crossed her arms. “That was a quick response.” Elias and Jones grunted in unison. Jones as man-at-arms was second in command and Elias, as general gopher and do-all, was the ship’s rat and the closest thing the gang had ever had to an engineer.
Jones unconsciously mimicked his boss, placing his weight on his left leg and crossing his heavily muscled arms over a chest designed to awe folk into handing over their valuables. Elias raised an eyebrow, he had always felt Jones was easily led.
Smith moved again. “Right, standard procedure, they are going to accelerate faster than us, they have a better prow for interplanetary dust dispersion, so we need to trim the ship and squeeze the juice.” As the ship was largely automated, and no one (not even the inventors) really knew how the M-space engines could be made to work harder, this instruction amounted to ‘get rid of all excess mass and pray.’ “Once we hit one-eighth lightspeed, we can use our foldspace prow to clear dust and then increase our acceleration. Set the trajectory up and out of the ecliptic and away from dust until then.”
She glanced at Elias, who stared back, one eyebrow still raised quizzically. “This means you can lay up the broom, go to the control room, and set the instructions in the computer—then start throwing junk out the back—and don’t forget the bilges this time.”
Elias didn’t sigh—he quite liked the work actually, and he knew he was smarter than the good-looking captain and the muscle-monster Jones.
The computer chimed in with a calm-voiced countdown: “Two hours to interception.” Elias settled his myPod earbuds into his ears, cranked up the Bluegrass, and slouched off.
Old Elias gripped the lecturn with both hands and leaned back a little to stretch out his back. It cracked and popped as he had been slouching over the microphone.
“You know there are three things as opened up the Frontier and one as fenced us in.” He held up a space-tanned hand and started counting off on his fingers. “You got the foldspace prow that kept space dust outta the way, you got the inertial cage so as you could accelerate without being turned to jam, and then the M-space engine—these things opened up the wilds between Earth and Mars, an’ out to Kuiper station as it became. For those as don’ know the theory, these engines have a frequency generator that makes a sound to shape the round energy waves that push against the other dimensions. With M-space engines as they were,” he showed his teeth to the front row again, “you couldn’ get enough oomph to cope with that heartless bitch called relativity. Humanity was stuck in the solar system.” The military in the front row started whispering—were Elias and his crew outside the solar system completely, is that where they were hiding their M-space engine factories?
Elias filled the aft airlock with the last of the movable fixings and pulled the lever to flush them into space. As the pile of furniture, cups, plates and cupboards spilled out into space, Elias could see the pursuit boat closer than ever framed against the inner solar system as they arced up and away over the top of the sun.
The computer chimed in with the friendly message: “Twenty minutes to interception, and the inertial cage is working well.”
Even over the staccato sound of banjo and shrieking guitar playing through his earbuds Elias took in the dire message. Twenty minutes thought Elias, until we get within range of cannon or missiles and we either end up boarded, or they hit a generator and we lose the foldspace prow and end up hitting something the size of a pea.
At speeds this high a piece of rock the size of a pea would deliver more energy than an atomic bomb going off. With shaking hands he dialled a more frantic tune on the myPod, a brazen savage heavy metal Bluegrass blend that would have curled the toes of anyone in the southern states. He breathed deep and felt his heart pick up the tempo; he felt livelier and more cheerful already. Time to pole out the bilges and sewers.
There was no whispering now as all were wrapped up in Elias’ story telling. His soft accent had drawn them in; they felt part of the pursuit and could feel the encroaching reach of the law catching up with Elias and the crew.
They also knew that access to whatever discovery had been made that day was about to come out. For decades the only supplier of the new generation M-space engines was Sundance industries, and all attempts to open the sealed engines had resulted in terrible explosive death—part of the deal; no one was to peak inside. All three robbers had bargained their freedom by sharing access to the technology—on an exclusive basis for sure.
“If we was wantin’ to escape we needed to go faster, and accelerate faster, that’s a given. Only the M-space engine could do this. Though everyone knows the theory—send a wave of energy across the other dimensions to gain traction—no one had worked out how to make it efficient. Well, it was while I was a poling the crud in the bilges, getting ready to dump some more mass, that it came to me.”
Elias stared down into the murky depths at the liquid movement as he dragged his broom pole through it, guiding the viscous liquids towards a sink hole in the bilges. “We’re certainly up the creek, thas’ fo’ sure,” he thought. The pole stopped moving. Elias lifted his head. He was out of the door before the pole keeled over and fell into the bilges.
“You want to replace the wave generator on the engine with what?” shrieked the Captain. Elias had burst into the bridge to find them unscrewing all things unscrewable ready for dumping. They were frantic and hot as the computer’s cool musical voice counted out: “Two minutes to interception.”
This was indeed the reaction Elias had expected to his idea, so with nothing to lose he decided to head back to the control room and do it anyway.
The audience was frozen in place, the defining moment and the revelation was almost here. Elias smiled softly and continued.
“The first that Miriam and Jones knew about my little experiment was when the computer’s chanted estimate for interception dropped from 2 minutes to 10 seconds. I’m a guessing that may have startled them some. I found out about them finding out about my little experiment when the doors of the control room crashed open and I was beset by the angry screams of Smith and Jones, accompanied by the background countdown of the chanting computer. I’m guessing it looked kinda suspicious, what with the M-drive cabinet open and all the wires pulled out like a cybernetic Italian dish. Noting their rather ferocious looks, I pressed ‘go’ on my replacement for the frequency generator. The scene all changed rather rapidly. For a start we all fell down as the ship lurched forward. The computer chant changed from a monotonous countdown to a high pitched panicked yelp about ‘not being able to sustain the inertial crew protection under such terrible acceleration.’ So I pressed ‘stop.’ The computer chatter calmly resumed—there was no pursuit no more.”
Everyone there had read the transcripts from the pursuing Sheriff and his crew. At the point where they had prepared to fire a broadside the target had disappeared—not as in magical, just as in near magical. The space-waggon that had been frantically spilling junk accelerated away, and became first a dot, then gone within a heartbeat. The two hour accelerating pursuit had taken them over the sun from Mars out to Earth, and now in the blink of an eye, the quarry had covered the same distance again, and was now untraceable.
The stunned crew sat on the floor in a row and stared out of the rear viewing port. There were no chairs, but Elias was more than comfortable sitting on the floor—he needed time to recover from the Captain’s bust-clenching hug. She had delivered this with gusto once they had heard the computer give the all clear. It had been the kind of hug he only dared to dream about.
“If only we had whisky,” whispered Jones. “Sure could do with some now.”
The Captain shifted toward a wall and punched a panel, causing a hidden door to pop open. She pulled out a small bottle. “Something I could not jettison,” she admitted with a sly smile as she handed the small bottle over.
Jones raised the bottle in a salute. “Here’s to Elias, and the fastest getaway ever. With this cargo we are stinking rich.” Elias and the Captain looked at Jones as he took a long swig, then back at each other. Elias knew that the Captain’s incredulous expression mirrored his own.
“The cargo? This ship is our key to anything we want. Ever,” stated the Captain raising her eyebrows at Jones. “We have the solar system at our feet. Lucky I employed Elias for thinkin’ and you for shootin’ Jonesy—have another drink.” She turned her head and stared at Elias, who felt a tremor in his newly gained composure. “So tell me again,” she leaned conspiratorially against Elias’ shoulder, “how being up a creek with no paddle inspired you.”
Elias took a deep breath, and gazed at the view of the binary dwarf planet Pluto below them with its partner Charon, nestled closely and overlapping slightly. He inadvertently glanced at the Captains chest, his cheeks flushed and he took another deep breath.
The air was electric—this was the point they had been waiting for; how had the old space waggon been turned into a high speed race machine?
“Up a creek without a paddle. I was using a round pole to push against a liquid, a paddle would have been better. Treads on a tyre rather than slick ones. A rough surface grips better than smooth. The M-space engine used a smooth energy wave to push against the other dimensions. It needed some grip, something rough. So that’s what I did—I replaced the frequency generator with something that made a harsh rough sound. I have the exact device with me now, and I will leave it on this here speaker’s table when I go.” He placed something small onto the lecturn top.
“As I like to remind folks like you engineers, and clever political types”—Elias wagged a knowing finger, “—never underestimate the power of music to move people.”
He turned and left, footsteps clacking loudly until he left the cavernous room. The thousands of people sat frozen. The harsh tinny sound of a heavy metal Bluegrass blend rose up from the lecturn. Then the crowd broke like a human tsunami roaring down onto the stage to be the first to scoop up the secret he had left behind.