Huey sat back in the padded recliner, the one the agency had form-fitted to his posture. He realized again that it was getting to be a tight fit. Since the chair hadn’t changed, he must be putting on more weight than he thought. Time to break out the onboard rowing machine stored at the bottom of the saucer, just above the heat shield, and get some exercise. Maybe tomorrow.
He looked at the central monitor. It was one of many, each locked onto the data that it measured, but this one was larger than the others. It showed the PERVS imagery (agency-speak for Panoramic Electromagnetic Radar-Visual-Sonar) from the special camera that circumnavigated the rim of this single-user Spaceship, the S.S. Whatnot. At the moment, the monitor showed the PERVS for the way forward (whichever way that might be).
And no matter which way you looked at it, the way forward was shrouded in darkness, a darkness so complete that no glimmer escaped from it. It reminded Huey of a long underwater commuter tunnel that had lost its overhead lighting.
With his left hand, Huey pressed a few buttons on his console’s laptop keyboard. Soon Arti, the shipboard computer system, spoke into his earpiece. It was a female voice, burnished oak in timbre, with a hint of some vaguely Southern accent. She sounded distracted.
“Eh, what’s up, Doc?” Huey smiled at this; he wasn’t expecting the immortal Bugs; maybe something more like the va-va-voom Jessica Rabbit in that animated movie. Arti’s voice was not at all rascally, more seductive, often that of a playful kitten, but today she had a bit of a snarl in it, as if she were put out with his interruption.
“Oh, did I disturb you?”
“Of course you did; my algorithm was running some diagnostics. But now you have my full attention, so what is it?”
“My question exactly.”
Huey could swear that Arti sighed with exasperation, but maybe it was just her circuitry emitting gas. “It,” Arti lectured; if she had a finger, Huey could see her wagging it, “is an indefinite pronoun, commonly used to indicate an inanimate object, and more recently as the self-selected pronoun of a transgender individual. Could you be more specific?”
Huey pointed to the central monitor. “That.”
While Arti couldn’t see (because she couldn’t really see) what Huey was pointing at, she didn’t need to; since she was the Whatnot’s shipboard megabrain (face it; Huey was a decent guy, but he just basically pushed the stick that pushed the ship around), she could access all the monitor feeds, so she could “see” what Huey saw. And, to the extent that she could do so (because, after all, she was just a machine), what she saw made her uneasy.
“That, my intrepid journeyman, is Beltatus-6. It’s a black hole, a large one, and it’s capable of consuming us.”
“Consuming us? Now I need you to be more specific.”
“As in it will suck us into itself, and who knows what happens then? Whatever it is, it’s sure to be different from this reality, and we may not like it. Unfortunately, my telemetrics tell me it may already be too late for us to escape the gravitational pull of Beltatus-6. The long fingers of her desire are already causing us to accelerate toward her deep throat.”
Huey had to admit that the tech nerds had come up with a good app for helping Arti to speak English - even trash novel metaphoric poetry - instead of Computer. “Well, that’s pretty specific, and a bit erotic. However, I’m not yet up for any intercourse - oral or gravitational - with a chick named Beltatus, so there has to be some way we can escape it, just call this a speed date, pay the tab, and make a quick and graceful exit.”
Arti said nothing.
“How far away is it?”
“With the data I have, I determine that it is less than two light-years away.”
“Wow, that's a long way. Could we even get there?”
“I suggest we conjure a wormhole that will teleport us there. If we do so, we can make it in about thirty-five minutes.”
Since the Whatnot was shaped much like the bowl of a spoon, heavy and nearly flat on the bottom, Huey thought he could maneuver it to stir up the beginnings of a wormhole, and then feed that toward Beltatus, creating an exclusive fast lane right toward it, rather than circling its gaping drain. It was sort of like paving your own highway to hell.
Huey tugged at the crotch of his pants. It wasn’t exactly Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard moment, not like Stewart pulling down the bottom edge of Picard’s officer-in-charge coat, but he needed to get comfortable; it was a long way to go, and they had only just begun. He gripped the stick that steered the Whatnot.
* * *
The S.S. Whatnot was basically built like the typical flying saucer as pictured in popular “I Want to Believe” posters that, two centuries ago, all the space nerds and conspiracy junkies had taped to their dorm room walls. It had a saucer bottom, thick and shielded, with an inverted teacup shape settled on it, the part where Huey lived, and this was topped by a command post in a clear bubble dome that allowed him to see the stars and everything else out in the void.
And there really was a lot out in the void, despite the apparent contradiction in those terms. Things like black holes that ate universes as afternoon snacks.
Huey levered his chair upright, sat up straight, and put the tiny communication chip in his right ear. “Arti, I think I might have a plan.”
Arti’s onboard lights were scrolling furiously, but she glitched at the sound of his voice and then dimmed to a background glimmer. When she spoke, she sounded tired. “And what might that be, Oh, ye font of inspiration?”
Arti had to admit that, despite all the strides she was making in her attempt to be more “relatable”, she still rankled at the fact that humans seemed very good at coming up with off-the-wall tangential ideas that worked elegantly, and to do so much more frequently than AI’s did.
“Well, when I was in high school, and even for a while after, I did a fair amount of skateboarding, mostly on city hall or courthouse steps, but often at skateparks in the playgrounds. I got pretty good at ollies and railslides, and my favorite routine was working a half-pipe, especially the tall ones.”
Arti could see him now, probably dressed in cargo shorts and a heavy metal band’s T-shirt, wearing thick tube socks and scuffed work boots. “I bet you were hot.”
Huey tried not to blush. He ought to talk to the agency boys about Arti’s flippancy, a bit unbecoming for a shipboard computer, but he had to admit he liked that about her. “Anyway, I was thinking maybe we could do something similar here. The Whatnot’s got no wheels, but she ought to slide like a board.”
All of Arti’s lights momentarily froze, turned a deep red, and then cautiously backed off through orange to a diluted yellow-green. If she had a mouth, it would be agape. “You’re going to treat Beltatus-6 as a half-pipe?”
“Sure. Dip into the pipe, feel the force build to be with me, do a railslide off the inside, and shoot out the other side. Nothing to it.”
Try as she might with all the power inherent in her servers, routers, and algorithms, Arti couldn’t come up with a better idea.
* * *
Amazingly enough, it actually worked. Granted, it felt like skateboarding inside a tornado or a hurricane, but while on steroids and mushrooms. Really effective steroids, and quality shrooms. Once they committed themselves to the plan, it became nothing more than learning a new stunt for the next airshow. Since they didn’t want to get a lot of practice doing this, both of them hoped the shows were over.
“We made it.” Huey could tell that Arti’s phrasing and intonation wasn’t just for dramatic effect; unlike Spock, she wasn’t afraid to show what could only be described as relief. He reflected that it seemed computers want to live as much as humans do.
He snorted. “Hunh. Was there ever really any doubt?”
“Well, my probability index didn’t seem to think it could work, but hey, it’s only an app.”
Huey squirmed in his seat and rolled his shoulders and neck. “I don’t know about you, but after all that, I could use some R ‘n’ R, and I don’t mean rock ‘n’ roll. Any place close that has warm weather, a pool, and decent Mai Tais?”
Oh, sure, all those things that I have no use for, Arti thought. Her lights whirred green for less than a second. “There’s a nice place on Callisto, one of the moons of Jupiter. Shall I make a reservation?”
“Sure. And how do I get there?”
“See those two bright stars up there in quadrant Gamma Six? Head for those, take a left after the second one, and go straight on ‘til morning.”