We are still three days out: the sun on our right, the moon on our left, the space station straight ahead. And I am requesting once more, that the minute we come into range we be shot out of the sky. Because we still have the strange alien artifact nestled in our cargo bay. And I am afraid it may do to the world, what it has done to my crew.
We still have it on board. We tried to get rid of it. We did. We tried to get rid of it, but it has become a phantom, quicksilver, a ghost of itself. I myself, tried to place my hands on the grey mechanism but failed to even come close. One of the men said it reminds him of that Greek puzzle about the man who, each day, travels halfway to Alexandria. The first few steps seem normal enough, but with each step taken towards the manner-minder — that’s what we’ve been calling it, the manner-minder — each step closer makes the thing grow smaller, and it simultaneously travels at right angles to itself when approached. At one point in each attempt I felt like I was walking straight towards an airplane only to end up with an airplane the size of a housefly hidden somewhere behind me.
Since it so easily evades one person we went out in force. Trying to surround it with numbers. It began to feel like we were all magnets and all carrying a like charge. It was hard to come close to the object and hard to come close to each other. Ted Sunds strained and strained and slowly moved ahead; and as he did, two of the men behind the grey device pitched and yawed and slowly tumbled so they were inverted and facing away. One of them screamed in pain and Ted backed off. Later, the man who screamed said it felt like he was about to fold up like an old map, or turns guts-out like a jellyfish.
We have received your radio messages. We can not understand your blasé attitude. You can see the device can protect itself. Once this thing is on Earth, it will take over. I keep warning, and you keep saying, “It doesn’t seem that bad.” I’m telling you, the affect promulgated by the alien item we found wouldn’t seem so benign if you were up here.
It began three weeks ago. We were mining iron ore in bulk at the far station inner ring after dropping into sync orbit in the asteroid belt. One of the skip loaders broke down, and Jim Wilson went up to see what was wrong. He radioed back and described the find, as much as this thing can be described. It’s like a Moebius strip convention. If you look at it from the side, it looks different than if you look at if from the front. I know, that’s what one would normally expect. Normally expect when dealing with a solid object. But I’m not sure this is a solid object. When we measured it was twice as big as the cargo bay; and then when we loaded it in, it only took up half the space we thought it would.
The thing must emit telepathic commands or instructions. We realize that now. It may have been built as part of a child’s schooling. Ted thinks it’s a weapon. But Ted thinks everything’s a weapon. We detect no radiation. We’ve tried with all the sensors at our disposal and we find nothing. So what is it that has forced manners, decorating, and personal decorum, to take over the whole ship? I wish I knew.
The first manifestation was very simple. Dinner was late. There are twenty-six people on this ship. Miners. Roughnecks. Scalawags. There are nine women and seventeen men. Two men cook our meals. They have a galley and they are located nearest to the gravity generator and they have unlimited storage capacity because of the Scropenheimer device. Not even the military has better equipment than we have. And when 12 of the crew walked in for grub, nothing was ready. We found the cooks making centerpieces. At first we didn’t even know they were centerpieces. Who knew from centerpieces? All we knew is there weren’t any salisbury steaks sitting on the tables. There were these colorful items in the center of the empty tables, and the cooks were just beaming with pride.
I looked at those objects d’art. I looked at them closely. The colors: purple, white, yellow, green. The shapes slender and flowing and eye catching. They were nice. They were wires. The centerpieces were made of paper and wires. Not coat hangers: thick conductive wires.
“Where’d you get these?” I asked.
“We cannibalized one of the air units. We took apart one of the ore grinding machines. That’s where we got the wires.”
It’s a big ship. Massive. The three ore pockets are bigger than football stadiums. The ore grinding machines were dead weight. We were through with them on this trip. They cost about a quarter billion dollars each and these idiot cooks have taken one apart for the pretty wires. But I had to focus on what was important at this moment. “Okay, but where’s the food?” I said.
“Still in the oven. We’re doing a very respected dish. Medallions of red celery, romaine lettuce with almonds, and something called twenty hour sauce.”
“Well, when’s it gonna be ready?”
“I’d say about seventeen more hours.”
It ended in a fight.
That was the first incarnation. It grew from there. All over the ship men were busy making curtains, ironing space suits, teaching each other what utensils to use with pie à la mode. Every time I came to a door there’d be people standing to the side saying:
“You go first.”
“No you go first.”
“But I insist”
“Really, I’m in no extravagant hurry.”
“It is a crude man who places himself ahead of another.”
“So you go ahead.”
“No after you.”
This was all somewhat unusual. These were rough individuals. Used to jokes and pranks. Once Toby put sand scorpions in Riley’s headgear and, to get even, Riley poured liquid oxygen in Toby’s boots. Toby lost toes. Riley lost half his face and went blind in one eye. But they got over it after a brief fight with ore hooks and they eventually became good friends. But now, now Toby and Riley are arguing once more. Now they can’t seem to agree which colors are complimentary and which colors clash. Riley keeps stenciling pink roses around Toby’s Galilee door, and Toby keeps painting over the work, with an oil-based semi-gloss vandal proof hi-hide-formula Brunswick blue. And they spend a lot of time dragging furniture in and out of the rec room. At one point a despised couch was thrown out into the vacuum of space. I can only pray it doesn’t follow our path to Earth, and take out a nice unsuspecting neighborhood as it falls.
That is the crew. That’s what’s going on with the crew. I thought, by being the captain, I could stay above all the bickering, but even I got dragged in. I finished dinner, slept, woke up, dressed, and then went in to breakfast. And, to my surprise, I found my plate still sitting where I’d left it. I called Wilbur Pesh over, to see if he had an explanation.
“What’s all this?”
“I wasn’t sure you were finished.”
“I went to bed, of course I was finished.”
“You didn’t cross your fork and knife.”
“If you cross your fork and knife it means you’ve finished the meal. You have to put your fork and knife crossed in the middle of your plate. That means you’re through.”
“I left the room, my plate was empty, I went to bed, and that means I was through!”
“It’s like this,” Wilbur said, as he took my silverware and proceeded to demonstrate the rules. “Knife and fork crossed in the middle of the plate means the setting may be cleared away. With the equipment left like this,” he put the knife and fork in an arrow-like configuration on the plate with the point of the arrow facing away from my chair, “that means you’re definitely coming back. That means you intend to return. But for your third choice — your third chance at doing this like a man with some manners — if you put your utensils like this,” he put the knife and fork parallel and off to the side. Still on the plate but off to the side, “this means, if all the other places are being cleaned off, you may also clean this plate from the table.”
“Do you like working in the galley?” I asked. “Have you any idea what loathsome jobs I can think up, given sufficient provocation?”
“No cap’n,” he said. “Sorry cap’n.”
“Get me some eggs and toast and coffee,” I said. I growled it actually.
He came back quick, but just had to try some more instruction. “I’ll not serve you till you take your elbows off the table,” he said.
I pointed my laser pistol at his head.
“Cream with your coffee?” he asked.
I finished the meal, trying hard to keep at least one elbow anchored to the table at all times. I stirred my coffee with my knife. Spread butter with a spoon. Blew my nose while at the table and left a four-cent tip. Pesh was crying real tears long before I left.
I didn’t get half way to the bridge when I got called by the intercom.
“There’s a problem with the E. V. A.” it said.
I hurried to the control center. It was Agnes. She wanted a chaperone.
Once a day we send out two crew members to inspect the hatches. By luck of the draw, today it was Agnes Sloan and Riley Wellstone.
“I’d really like it better if you sent out a third person so my reputation isn’t compromised.” Agnes sounded close to tears. In the control room three men snickered when they heard Agnes use the phrase, “so my reputation isn’t compromised.”
“Agnes, listen. Isn’t it... Aren’t you with Riley?” I didn’t want to mention all the flowers Riley was stenciling all over the ship but I didn’t want to have to send out another person either. “Aren’t you with Riley Wellstone?
“I think you’re safe. No offense, Riley.”
“Right skip.” he said.
“And you’re both in space suits. I mean, even if he groped you, all he’d feel is Styrofoam and plastic.”
“Want me to show her?” Riley offered.
“No... sh... sh... feces! He... he... heckfire! I can’t even curse properly! It’s getting to me! Okay Agnes, I’ll send somebody out. Would the chaplain suit you?” I was asking Agnes but it was Riley who purred the answer, “Suits me.”
It isn’t that I’m opposed to the old ways. It’s not that I’m against saying “Please” and “Thank you.” Once a year we have formal dining on this ship. And we put out little place cards and we dress in good clothes. I like music. I do. I consider myself cultured. We play operas and concert music and we do the best we can under the circumstances. But when the alarms sound I expect men to jump. They can’t be saying, “May I be excused.” I don’t care if they carry a chicken leg away from the table while they run to don their suits. The elevator ride takes two minutes, they might as well finish the chicken on the way up to their stations.
Wait a minute. I just had a thought. Don’t blow us out of the sky just yet. I have an idea. I’m going to suit up and go to the cargo bay and ask this thing to leave my ship. And just to cover all the bases, just to save my men and the planet I love, I’m going to use the word “Please.”
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith