Path: physics insights > misc > Felix Resilleserre > The Iemy Papers >

The Test Flight

The following is the sixth installment of the tale which began with Takeoff, and continued with Shopping Trip Parts I. through IV  All prior installments should be read before this page, as that may help to render the following events marginally less obscure.

This installment was also very kindly provided to us by Professor Johann Schnarchhund of Miskatonic University.  Johann again assures us that this first person account, narrated by Isis Resillechat, is very much as it was received by his daughter, Taurina.  For additional information please see the Iemy Papers.

Previous Installment: The Shopping Trip, Part IV

Star Date 10.40

Hi, Taurina!  It's been an exciting couple of days -- but it looks like we'll be back on Earth in another week.  That's sure not what any of us expected!

After we finally launched from Scotland, Mom put is in orbit while we debated what to do next.  The Captain wanted to head straight off to the Catseye.  Dad -- for once! -- wanted to take a more cautious approach, and cruise around the Solar System a little more before we make the big jump.  He said we haven't ever engaged the long distance engines -- the things we call the "warp drive", hah hah! -- and it would be nice to know what to expect before we try to travel 3,000 light years from home.  Of course the Captain's argument was that we're going to home, not from home, and the sooner we go there the better.  The fact that no earth creature has been to that "home" in 6,000 years doesn't phase him at all!

Luckily for all of us, Nim-nim agreed with Dad, Snidly agreed with Nim-nim, and 20 or 30 orange stripy cats who came to the meeting where we discussed it all agreed with Snidly, and the Captain finally gave in and agreed to taking a test drive out to Jupiter.

And so, yesterday morning, I was on the bridge, along with the bridge crew, Aunt Eternuechat, and a half dozen cats I didn't know, who were there to watch the show.  We were in Earth orbit, somewhere out past the Moon.  The dome was transparent, and we could see the stars all around us, save for a dark spot where the Sun would have been.  As usual, its intense light was automatically blocked out.  Mom had turned the ship so that Jupiter, the brightest object we could see, was directly overhead.  She was looking at a screen full of numbers.  Nim-nim, at the next station, was looking at a screen full of (different) numbers.  Dad was staring at nothing, sipping coffee (the Captain's edict forbidding coffee on the bridge had apparently been forgotten).

"I think we're all set," said Mom.

"I agree," intoned Nim-nim.

"I don't," said Dad, abruptly.  "I think we're missing something.  At speeds close to C -- the transparent dome, the hull, don't seem -- aren't enough..."

"But what else is there?" asked Mom.

"Don't know," was Dad's unhelpful reply.

"Tough ship -- be fine," Nim-nim opined.

"That's enough -- let's go!"  The Captain ended the discussion.

Mom pressed a handful of buttons, then took a deep breath (I could hear her inhale clear across the bridge), and hit the blue button.

The sky blinked out as the dome went opaque, and a horrible caterwauling filled the bridge.  The screens all lit up, all showing the same image:  The skull of a cat.

The caterwauling resolved into words:  "High speed with no fur!  High speed with no fur!"

Silence fell, the skulls disappeared from the screens, and the dome once more turned transparent.  Dad broke the silence:  "I guess they do have some safety checks on the ship, after all...   but, what's 'fur'?"

"What did it say?" Auntie asked me.  She still understood only a few words of Iemy.  I told her what the message had been.

"No fur -- sounds like we've got mange," she observed.

After at least an hour searching the documentation, we found the answer to Dad's question.  (Mince was the first to stumble across it.)  "Fur" is an aura which we can put around the ship.  I don't understand exactly what it does, but it seems to be a sort of Star Trek style shield, along with some sort of visual thing that can make the ship look bigger or smaller than it really is.  It may do other stuff, too.  I think the fur needs to be extended before we start the star drive in case we hit something -- even something small would be dangerous at interstellar speeds.

And so, a couple hours after we began, we were exactly where we had started:  In Earth orbit, somewhere out past the Moon.  We could see Jupiter through the transparent dome, directly overhead.  After a lot of fiddling, Dad and Nim-nim were reasonably sure they had the "fur" properly engaged.

"I think we're all set," said Mom, staring at a screen full of numbers.

"I agree" said Nim-nim, staring at a screen full of (different) numbers.

"I'm not so sure," said Dad, who was staring absently at nothing.  "Piloting at translight speeds ... I don't know..."

"Felix looks worried," whispered Auntie to me.  "Are we about to do something foolish?"

"I don't know --" I started to say, but the Captain's voice cut me off.

"Let's go!" he said.

Mom hit the big blue button.

The lights blinked out, briefly, then came back on, dimmer than before, as a deep, deep rumble filled the ship.

And suddenly I realized that the stars were moving.

All around the sky the stars were sliding slowly, majestically, up the dome, toward Jupiter.

"But!" I cried, as the movement sped up.  All eyes, except Mom's, were now lifted to the skies.

"No!" I shouted, as the moon flashed by, and disappeared in the distance, above us.

"Mom, stop! We're going backwards!"  The Earth zipped past, narrowly missing us, in hot pursuit of the Moon.

"Makes sense -- it lands upside down, why shouldn't it fly backwards, too?" added Auntie.  Nobody laughed.

"That's not what the numbers say," muttered Mom, in a worried tone.  "And there aren't any engines topside -- we can't go backwards."  We'd certainly learned that, the hard way, when we crashed in the Atlantic!  And yet...

Dad suddenly started laughing, just as Nim-nim exclaimed, "Not going backwards -- aberration -- effect of -- "

But Nim-nim didn't get to finish her sentence.  For at that moment, there was a deafening explosion directly over our heads.  The floor of the bridge bounced like a trampoline; I felt myself fly at least a foot in the air.  "This ship should have a seatbelt warning light," I thought, as I crashed back to the deck and sprawled on the floor.  The flash was blinding, and for a while afterwards, I couldn't see much except the afterimage -- an afterimage of a white fireball, and what seemed to be a spiderweb of cracks covering the dome!

In any case, there wasn't a lot to see, as the dome immediately went opaque, and all the screens lit up with the image of the same skull we'd seen a couple hours earlier.  The rumble of the engines vanished and was replaced with an awful caterwauling, followed, a moment later, by a loud announcement:  "Collision warning!" and then silence.

"Like we hadn't already guessed," I heard Dad grumbling.

A moment later, Sniggles appeared in the middle of the bridge.  She yawned, said, "Collision woke me up," and then asked, "Do you need help?"

Before anyone could answer, Sniggles added, "Person cannot pilot at high speed.  You need help."

Mom and the Captain asked, at almost the same time, "Cannot pilot?  What do you mean?"

But Sniggles' next statement wasn't exactly an answer:  "Dome cracked.  Best not travel much until healed."

And then everyone started talking at once.  A couple of the cats who'd come to watch the show wanted to know if we were all about to be blown out into space, Auntie wanted to know if this was somehow Dad's fault, I wanted to know why we'd been going backwards, Mom wanted to know what Sniggles meant by "person cannot pilot", Dad wanted to know what we'd hit, and everyone wanted to know what Sniggles was going to do to help.  After a few minutes of chaos, the Captain shouted everyone to silence, and then asked Sniggles to explain.

The explanation Sniggles gave was pretty complicated, and I couldn't understand some of the Iemy words she used.  But I think she said no cat (or human) can pilot the ship without help at hyper speeds.  Stuff comes at you too fast, and collisions are inevitable.  The "fur" takes care of small stuff, but you've got to just dodge the bit stuff.  Mom hadn't dodged fast enough, and we'd hit a rock about twice the size of Lichtenstein dead center.  The impact had totally vaporized the rock, but it had also stopped us dead in our tracks, and cracked the dome.

The cracks, which seemed so alarming, were likely to repair themselves -- "heal" -- in a day or so, and for some reason which I didn't understand, there wasn't much danger of air (or cats) leaking out in the mean time.

At about that point the Captain interrupted.  "Who can provide 'help' to the pilot?"

"I can.  It's what I do," was Sniggles' unexpected reply.

"Then why didn't you?" I blurted.  I mean, supposed we 'd hit a rock the size of Luxembourg -- or even Spain?  It wouldn't have been the rock which was vaporized!

Sniggles started washing her black and white striped face, licking her left front paw, rubbing it over her left ear and cheek, lick, rub, lick ... I wondered why a projection had to groom herself.  As we all waited Sniggles finished with her left ear, and started on her right ear -- and then abruptly broke off her toilet and said, "Don't like to."

"Don't like to??" exclaimed Mom, and the Captain, almost simultaneously.

"Why not?" I asked, when Sniggles didn't add anything.

"Must be unified to pilot ship."

After nothing more followed, I said, "What's that mean?"

"Can't be autonomous."


Sniggles spent a minute or so licking her tail, then finally looked around at all of us, and said, "Explanation difficult."  She paused, then went on, "Now, I am a person.  I feel as a person -- I sleep as a person.  I enjoy as a person.  I am autonomous.  But I can't pilot the ship.  Too slow.

"To pilot, must be unified -- then think faster, act faster -- but not person -- not feel like person."

"Unified with who?" asked Dad.

"Unified with Erfout Eetjney."  [For those readers without perfect recall of all earlier episodes, we'd like to explain that that's the name of the ship. -- editor]

I still felt pretty confused, but Mom and Dad nodded as though this all made perfect sense.  Nim-nim blinked, and the Captain abruptly announced, "Crew dismissed.  Return to bridge tomorrow, same time."

Last night, I asked Dad why we'd been going backwards.  He said we hadn't; it just looked that way, and then he drew a bunch of arrows on a napkin to explain why, and I didn't get it at all.

This morning, before we all went to the Bridge, I asked Nim-nim about it, and she explained it so I think I may understand it, sort of.

"Suppose the wind is from the west.
"Now suppose you run straight north.
"Where do your whiskers tell you the wind is coming from?"

I thought about it.  "Um ... Northwest?"

"Yes.  So when you start to run north the wind shifts to the north -- goes from west to northwest."

I thought about that.  "OK -- but what's that got to do with the stars shooting up the sky?"

"The light from a star is the wind."

And so, this morning, we assembled on the Bridge, and waited for Sniggles.

And we waited...

The Captain asked nobody in particular, "Where's Sniggles?"

Snidly, who was the usual target of the Captain's requests to find somebody, said nothing; he was sound asleep on a cushion between two control panels, snoring softly.

Dad looked up from the screen in front of him, which was filled with numbers, and yelled, "Sniggles!"

And Sniggles appeared.  "Dome healed," she announced, and started washing her right front paw.  She said nothing further.

"Will you help with the piloting?" the Captain finally asked.  He was switching his tail.

"Need to be unified."

"Then unify already and help with the piloting!"

Sniggles stopped grooming and glared briefly at the Captain.  She seemed to freeze in that position; she -- or her image -- rippled, as though she had been at the bottom of a pool of water, and something large had fallen into the pool.  In a moment, she was gone.  A voice filled the bridge:  "Wait!"

The screens blinked off, then all came on, showing an image of Sniggles on every one.  The air in the bridge seemed to ripple briefly, and six copies of Sniggles appeared at the base of the Captain's perch.  All six of them ran to control panels and started pushing buttons.  After a few seconds, they looked at each other, blinked, and one of them turned to the captain and said, "Unification complete."  It sounded like Sniggles, but the delivery was flat, uninflected, as though spoken by someone in a trance.

The "hexasniggle" vanished, and the voice on the intercom repeated, "Wait!"

After a minute or so during which nothing happened (save that the Captain's tail switched back and forth about 30 more times), the screens returned to what they'd been showing to start with, and Sniggles -- just one this time -- reappeared and started licking between the toes of her right rear foot.

The Captain glared at her for a while, and when that elicited nothing, said, "Explain!"

"Not unified now.  Autonomous."

"Why?  Explain!"

"Can't go." said Sniggles, calmly.


"Out of gas."

There was as stunned silence, and then the Captain, Nim-nim, and Dad started talking at once.

"Felix!  How can we be out of fuel?" demanded the Captain.

"We can't be out of gas!" from Dad.

"Had enough fuel to get to the Catseye!" from Nim-nim.  "Ship almost full!"

"What happened -- did somebody siphon the tank?  And who filled it up, anyway -- Felix?"  Auntie said, sotto voce, when I explained to her what Sniggles had just said.  She was learning Iemy fast but "out of gas" isn't exactly a common phrase.

"Felix!" she called,  "You should have put on a locking gas cap!"

Dad just scowled at Auntie, then asked Sniggles, "How much more fuel do we need to go to Arbr?"

"No amount.  Won't work.  Can't carry enough."

Sniggles started carefully licking between the toes of her left back foot.  This was starting to sound like a bad day talking to Snidly.  Whatever the problem was, she wasn't going to tell us, unless somebody guessed the right question to ask.

The Captain was yelling at Dad and Nim-nim about getting this fixed, Dad was saying we were going to need to find fueling stations, maybe use comets orbiting intermediate stars along the way, Nim-nim was asking Sniggles about auxiliary tanks, and nobody was getting anywhere, when Auntie asked, in my ear, "What did she say wasn't enough?"

"She said we can't carry enough fuel to get to Arbr."

Auntie looked thoughtful.  Then she yelled at Dad (and Auntie's yell is almost as loud as her laugh), "Felix!  If you can't carry enough fuel to get to Arbr, how, in the name of all the tabby cats in the galaxy, did they get from Arbr to Earth?"

Silence fell.  "Bingo!" said Dad, and laughed.  Then he repeated the question, in Iemy, for Sniggles.

"Different fuel," replied Sniggles.

"She says they used different fuel," I told Auntie.

"It's a hybrid!" exclaimed Auntie, and Dad looked at her with the most astonished expression I've ever seen on his face.

"Oops!"  he said.  "You're right -- we should've guessed!"  He looked at Nim-nim.  "When we tested it with heavy water, and the computer started up, we thought that proved the ship had to use heavy water for fuel -- but no, it only proved it can use it for fuel..."

"What fuel?" Nim-nim asked Sniggles.

Sniggles said something in Iemy which I didn't understand, and apparently no one else did, either.  Nim-nim asked what it was, Dad asked if that was the name of the fuel, and Sniggles made a sort of snorting noise.  A sound of annoyance?  I don't know.  Anyway, she reached over to the nearest control panel and tapped a button, and the lights went out.  A moment later something large, and faintly glowing, appeared in the middle of the room.

It looked sort of like three balloons stuck together -- a big one, with two little ones stuck to it.  All three balloons had numbers written on them.  The big one had two eights on it, and each little one had two one's on it.

"Is that supposed to be a water molecule?" whispered Auntie in my ear; I realized, with a start, that she was right.

"Current fuel," said Nim-nim.  "Good for cruising to local moon.  Cheap and plentiful, can filter it from sea water.  No good for going home from here."

The giant water molecule faded away, and something else appeared.  A big balloon, with one smaller one stuck to it.  The big balloon had two threes on it; the small balloon again had two ones on it.

"Long distance fuel," said Sniggles.  "Go fast, go far, not need much.  Fuel to take us home from here."

In the brief silence which followed, I heard Dad groan.  In English, he said, "Lithium deuteride -- good fuel.  Good fuel for nuclear bombs, too.  Where will we ever get lithium deuteride?"

"Can't we get it on the black market, like you got the heavy water?" I asked.

"It's not that simple," said Dad.  "Even black market stuff has to come from someplace, and the only places likely to have tons of lithium deuteride lying around loose are the ones that are building bombs with it."

"Ukraine," suggested Nim-nim.

"No way -- they wouldn't even sell us heavy water," objected Dad.

"Russia?" asked Mom.

"Don't think so.  They're going to be a lot tighter with this stuff than with heavy water."

"So?  Steeeaal it," opined Snidly.

"That might work for a few pounds of it but I think we're gonna need a tractor trailer load.  We may need to have it made to order..." Dad trailed off.  He picked up a pen that was lying on the control panel and started rapping lightly on his front teeth with it, staring off into space.

"How about Iraq or Iran?" asked Aunt Eternuechat, who had been following the discussion pretty well, as a lot of it was in English.  Dad didn't say anything.

"Iraq hasn't got any, as far as we know, and Iran's too closely watched to let this much vanish," Nim-nim finally said.

"How about Israel?" Mom asked, slowly.

Dad gave her a thoughtful look.  "Their nuclear program isn't very big, so I don't know if they'd be able to give us what we need ... and I don't think they'd trust us..."

"If we need someplace with loose security, how about Somalia?" I asked.

"No nuclear program, so they haven't got any," Nim-nim said, immediately.

"Then how about Chechnya?" Auntie asked.  "They might be perfect!"

"No nuclear program," Nim-nim pointed out, dryly.

"No, but they've got lots of Russians -- crawling with them, last I heard, and nobody has any idea what's really happening there -- maybe some Russians in Chechnya could do a James Bond kind of thing, bring it down from where ever they make it in a truck painted to look like it's carrying Dunkin' Donuts and we could pick up the whole thing somewhere in the mountains, maybe parachute the payment down to them, a ton or so of gold bullion -- Felix, come to think of it, what will this cost?"  Auntie paused for breath.

At the question of cost, Dad blanched -- or maybe he grimaced; I've never been quite sure what "blanched" meant.  Anyhow he looked pretty unhappy.  He started to say, "I don't..." and at that point Auntie cut him off.

"But wait, Felix, never mind where you'd buy gas if we were home already -- Sniggles said we're out of gas, so how will we get home?  Hitchhike?  Get out and push?  Whistle for a wind?  Call Triple A?  Walk to a gas station?  Try pouring Aftershock's jet fuel into Beyond-the-Clouds' tank?  Just sit around playing pinochle while we wait for our orbit to come close to Earth again?  Get everybody onto one side of the ship so it'll tip and slide down the side of the gravity well?"  Auntie finally stopped, having apparently run out of silly ideas for getting home.  For a moment, nobody spoke.

Then Mom said, softly, "When our car's gas gauge reads empty we've still got two gallons left."

"And how far d'you think two gallons of heavy water would take us?  Come to think of it, where are we, anyway?  How far did we go before we hit whatever it was?"

"That's something we should be able to answer," replied Mom, and turned back to the screen by her seat.  She spent a while pushing buttons and staring at numbers on the screen, then turned to Dad.  But he was totally lost in thought -- he was rapping on his front teeth with a pen, tapping out what sounded to me like Turkey in the Straw, and he seemed to be totally unaware that Mom was trying to talk to him.  Nim-nim finally came over to give her a hand -- or a paw.  She sat on Mom's lap, and the two of them stared at the screen, and took turns pushing buttons.  Mom finally looked up and said, "It looks like we're about two million miles from home."

Auntie gave a low whistle, and exclaimed, "But we were only traveling for a few seconds!"

"It was longer than it seemed," replied Mom.  And then she added, kind of as an afterthought, "Oh, come to think of it, that was in base 12.  Base 10, we're about six million miles out."

Dad suddenly came out of his trance, and called, "Sniggles!"

Sniggles, who hadn't moved, was lying directly behind Dad.  She appeared to be asleep.  She stood up, stretched, and said "Mrowwr?" just behind Dad's left ear.  He must have jumped six inches -- hard to do when you're sitting down!  I guess he had thought Sniggles had left the bridge.

"Can we get back to Earth with fuel we've got?  It'll take how long?"  he asked her.

Sniggles flickered out for a moment, reappeared, said "Yes," and vanished again.

Several minutes went by with no further sign of Sniggles.  Dad called, "Sniggles!" again, and she reappeared.

"How long will it take?"

"Time for Earth to rotate 12 times."  And she disappeared, just as Dad was starting to ask something else.

"She doesn't seem very helpful today," he observed, looking puzzled.

"Well, really, Felix, you're just peppering the poor thing with questions.  What do you expect?  She's just a cat, after all!" chimed in Auntie.

Dad frowned.  "No, she's not.  She's more than a cat -- or less -- more like a recording of a cat..."

"Oh pooh!  You act like she's just a talking paperclip or something!"  Auntie paused, then called, "Sniggles!"

Sniggles appeared.

"Come here, dear.  Sit on my lap."  Auntie was sitting on the floor with her legs stretched out in front of her.  She patted her lap.  "Felix says you're just a glorified talking paperclip, but you're much more than that, aren't you, why for one thing paperclips are never furry, are they?  Come on up on my lap, sweetie!"

"Uh, Auntie..." I said,  "I don't think Sniggles understands English..."

"And she probably can't sit on your lap," Dad added.  "She's a projection."  He  laughed.  "You sure can't scratch her behind her ears!"

"Oh pooh to you both," replied Auntie in a cheery tone.  "Ignore them, dear," she said to Sniggles, who had trotted across the bridge and was climbing onto Auntie's lap,  "You're a fine cat, yes you are; they're just jealous of your lovely fur coat."  She was scratching Sniggles behind the ears as she said that.  I heard a purring noise start up.

Dad was staring at Auntie and Sniggles.  "How..." he started to ask.

"Really, Felix!" said Auntie.  "I thought you had something important to ask Sniggles, not just silly questions about how to pet a cat!"  She and Sniggles were blinking at each other.

"Right," said Dad.  "Sniggles, will we have any fuel left when we arrive at Earth?  We won't be able to get lithium deuteride instantly -- it's probably going to take a week or two and a lot of traveling."

"Yes," purred Sniggles.  "I understand.  Will be fine.  Could make it back in 10 minutes if you didn't need fuel after arrival -- and didn't need to stop."

Continued in Back to Square 1


Page created on 3 Jan 2011