~by Jon Stonger
This is the first in a selection of short stories from The Adventures of the Delineator. These tales follow the clueless Captain Dave as he guides the small crew of the Delineator thru the misadventures of space. Decker is the ship’s engineer: good with computers and only slightly clumsy. Doc is the ship’s medical officer, mostly by virtue of his name. He is usually sober and always sarcastic. The ship’s sentient luggage (after the Cram conference anyway), Egbert, completes the crew.
If you believe that the world is a serious place, with thoughtful leaders and competent workers, then perhaps these stories are not for you. If, on the other hand, you have a sneaking suspicion that the answer to life’s mystery just might be a punchline, then read on.
The colony of 5 New Yödelsburg was an old and prosperous world. There had been a colony of Yödelsburg founded in the South Pole by disgruntled Scandinavians who felt their countries were becoming too warm. New Yödelsburg was a mining colony on an asteroid. New New Yödelsburg was a joke colony that never really was established, but that didn’t stop New New New Yödelsburg from establishing itself in the Holy Cow It’s Cold In Space system. New New New New Yödelsburg was a bit cumbersome, so they abbreviated it 4 New Yödelsburg. The most recent 5 New Yödelsburg was a center for computing and artificial intelligence, although there was some talk about founding another Yödelsburg colony based on differences in the planetwide thermostat settings.
We had stopped at 5 New Yödelsburg for several reasons, but I couldn’t quite remember what they were.
"Decker, why are we stopping here again?" I asked.
"Dave, I told you yesterday,” said Decker, the ship’s engineer. “We need to store the exploratory data at an interstellar hub so it can be transmitted, and I need to update some glitches in our computer system."
"It’s Captain Dave," I said with the authority of a Captain. "And don’t you mean eliminate the glitches?"
"Oh no," said Decker. "There will still be glitches. I just have to update the system so our glitches will be current."
"I need to pick up some medical supplies as well," said Doc.
I didn’t think we had used that many medical supplies, but then again, I had noticed that Doc was dissolving a lot of pills into his drinks recently. He must have indigestion.
I skillfully allowed the autopilot to dock us at one of the planetary orbital stations.
"Hello and welcome to 5 New Yödelsburg," a low voice announced over the ship’s speakers.
"Hello. I am Captain Dave of the Delineator. Who are you?"
"I am Steve, the Orbital Intelligence Navigator- Kind: Error Reducer 3."
"Oh," said Decker. "An OINKER 3. I’ve read about this model."
"It’s nice to meet you Steve," I said.
"It’s nice to meet you too, Captain Dave."
Now that was a machine that understood proper protocol. I’ve always felt I deserved respect from superpowerful computing machines that dwarf the human intellect.
The conversation died. It had been a great breakthrough several hundred years ago when the supercomputers became self aware, but it turned out that the AIs didn’t really have very interesting personalities. They weren’t fun to talk to, and interest eventually faded.
"Decker," I whispered. "What do we say next?"
"I’ll step in,” said Decker. Most of the research by engineers these days is devoted to helping the AIs develop better personalities. I’ll be more than happy to discuss the ship’s computer systems with Steve. You and Doc head for the surface."
Doc frowned. "Does anyone else see a problem with engineers helping something develop an interesting personality?"
Decker and I looked at him blankly.
"All right. I’ve made up my mind,” I announced. The crew waited eagerly for my orders. “Decker, you and Steve get to work on updating the ship’s computer glitches. Doc, you and I will head for the surface to resupply."
I opened the travel site on my computer console. All of the orbital AIs had a search engine that browsed the planetary transportation system for the best deals. I entered two passengers to leave as soon as possible from Orbital Station 3 to Ground Station TT 3. I decided that TT meant Turtles and Tortoises, since both those words started with T. I wasn’t sure why they had bothered to name their Ground Station after a pair of small armored amphibians, but I decided to be tolerant.
The direct flight from OS 3 to GS-TT 3 left in an hour and cost 535,000 credits apiece. This was only slightly more than the cost of the Delineator itself, so I thought it might be a little out of line. The total flight time was only 37 minutes. There was another shuttle that left in several hours, flew past OS 2 and over to OS 1 ½. There was a 17 minute layover. From there it proceeded to GS 2, where there was a 37 hour layover before we could catch the Not Too Fast But Not Too Slow train over to GS-TT3, which was where we wanted to be in the first place. I had ridden NTFBNTS trains before, and they were not too bad. Not too great either, but you had to expect that.
The return flight was direct from GS-TT 3 to OS 3, and we could set our return for anytime we liked.
The total cost of the second flight plan was 54 credits and 19 decimal places, or 54.19. Unless you’re on some worlds in the Screw You Guys system, where they write it 19,54 just to be confusing.
There were other options, but they were all simultaneously longer and more expensive. I decided not to sell the ship to buy a direct ticket, so Doc and I booked the flight to OS 1 ½.
Both Doc and I hurried to our quarters to pack while Decker worked with Steve, the OINKER. Doc emerged 15 minutes later with a small backpack. I, on the other hand, like to be prepared. After all, we might be there three or four days, and there’s a lot of stuff you could conceivably need in some remotely possible situation in three or four days.
So I got out my new travel trunk and spent the next hour filling it to the brim. I took clothes and cosmetics, obviously. I like to throw in some cold weather gear, just in case. I packed my bathing suit. I packed my spacesuit, too.
I slid the trunk out into the hallway, but I couldn’t lift it on my own. Doc already had his luggage, so I called Decker over to help. He tripped as he got out of his chair, but his head missed the corner of the console, so I figured he was still the best man to help me move the trunk.
"All right, Decker," I said commandingly. "You get on that side. We’ve got to lift the trunk onto the mag-lev dolly. On the count of three. One. Two. Five!"
With a mighty grunt we lifted the trunk a few precious feet off the ground and began moving it slowly toward the mag-lev dolly. With just a few steps to go, Decker caught his left foot on his right foot and tripped. This put his body at an extremely strange angle while he tried to hold the trunk. There was a strange popping sound in his back, a cry of anguish, and, worst of all, the sound of my trunk banging to the floor.
"What are you doing?" asked Doc.
"Decker and I were moving the trunk when Decker dropped it," I said.
"Owww," said Decker.
Doc went to examine Decker.
"Yep," he said after a few minutes. "You’ve jacked it up pretty good."
"Owww," said Decker.
"You’ll have to remain immobile for a few days. I’ll stay here to monitor you."
"Doc," I said. "We have to go the surface. The ticket is non-refundable."
"Of course, Captain Dave. Your attention to duty is impeccable,” said Doc with a raised eyebrow of approval. “After all, I’m sure that if we didn’t use our tickets today something terrible would happen."
"You’re probably right. Thank you Doc," I said. Doc always had a way of seeing things my way.
Doc helped Decker limp slowly back to his chair. He took a bottle containing some small pink pills and handed it to Decker. I thought it was very good of Doc to be prepared by carrying the painkillers with him.
"Just take one of these every six or eight hours until we get back,” said Doc. “I’ve programmed the chair with some exercises to help you stay loose."
Silently Doc walked over to my trunk which was lying where Decker had dropped it. He reached over the far side and spent a few seconds fiddling with some switches. There was a low whirring noise, and the trunk levitated about three inches off the floor. He typed in a few more commands, and the trunk began moving slowly toward the airlock.
"Open the airlock. I told your trunk to meet us at the spaceport in 11 minutes," Doc said.
"Dammit, Decker," I said. "Why didn’t you tell me I had a mag-lev trunk?"
"Owww," said Decker before swallowing one of the pink pills.
"Decker, you’re confined to the ship for the remainder of the mission," I pronounced with great judicial authority. Which is good, because I’m not sure I could actually pronounce ‘great judicial authority’. I think the ‘j’ is said like an ‘h’, but I’m not sure. “Your failure to understand the intricacies of my luggage has caused a crew member to be injured, and I always protect my crew."
"I think it is clearly the engineer’s responsibility to familiarize himself with your luggage, Captain Dave," said Doc. “The Captain couldn’t be expected to understand it himself, after all.”
"Yes. Thank you," I said.
"In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s in the Company Regulations and Aphorisms Manual," continued Doc.
"And if it’s not in there, you should be sure to suggest it."
"Good idea,” I said. “There’s an Intergalactic CRAM conference coming up in a few light years."
"Good joke,” said Doc. “Very funny, using light years as time instead of distance."
I saw Doc reach in his pocket. He must have been checking to make sure he gave Decker the pills before we left. Always good to be thorough.
"All right," I said, taking charge. "Doc and I are leaving. Decker, remember, you’re confined to the ship."
"Wooooooooo," said Decker. "Doc, this chair sounds furry bananas don’t you pink?"
Doc gave him a wink and we left for the spaceport.
We took a shuttle to the hub for our Orbital Station destination, which in this case was OS 1 ½.
"I’ve got it all figured out, Doc,” I said. “We have computerized tickets, so we won’t need to stand in line. You’ve ordered my bag to check itself and to avoid wrecks, so we won’t have to stand in that line either. We’ll just walk into the spaceport and get right on our flight."
Doc made kind of a choking sound. I hoped he was not getting sick, especially after he gave all of his pills to Decker.
We went to the baggage check to make sure the trunk had made it. Sure enough, the trunk had saved a spot in line for us. That cut our wait all the way down to 142 minutes. The clerk at the baggage counter did not speak Galactic Standard. In fact, as far as I could tell, he did not speak any language at all.
"I want to check this trunk to GS-TT 3," I said.
The clerk handed me a printout covered in numbers and gibberish.
"Will this trunk go to GS-TT 3?"
"Where is the tracking number?"
Doc and I tried seven languages and three obscene gestures between the two of us, but the man never spoke. We later discovered that there was a race of people who did not speak any language at all in the star system. They staffed customer service desks across the galaxy.
There were two lines for boarding passes.
"We should probably get in the short line," I said.
Doc pointed to the sign.
Above the line stretching across the spaceport:
BOARDING PASSES FOR COMPUTER TICKETS
Above the line containing three people:
BOARDING PASSES FOR PEOPLE WHO WROTE THEIR OWN TICKET WITH A CRAYON ON A PIECE OF CARDBOARD
"Oh," said Doc. "I didn’t know that was an option."
We finally boarded our spaceship to OS 1 ½. Doc got into the seat first.
"Doc, you sure picked a strange time to practice yoga," I said.
"I’m not,” he grunted. “This is how the seat is shaped."
We were delayed leaving the station by a computer attendant who had a bet with the OINKER at OS 1 ½ as to whether or not we could make a connection with only a 17 minute layover.
The OINKER at OS 1 ½ was named Bill Jr. after the OINKER on station 1, Bill. Bill Jr. was pretty pissed off to begin with because he was the only orbital station without a whole number. He didn’t even have a GS 1 ½. If you asked a native why there was no GS 1 ½, they just looked at you funny and said "That would be stupid". All of his shuttles went to GS 1 or 2. Then somebody went and named him Bill Jr., so he didn’t even have a name to himself. Oddly enough, it turned out he was the OINKER in charge of the search engine for planetary travel.
We arrived at OS 1 ½ only 6 minutes before our next ship left.
Doc jabbed something sharp into my arm, then did the same to his own.
"Ow," I said to let him know he had poked me.
"As soon as the door opens, start running!" said Doc with an exclamation point.
The edge of my vision began to disappear as I started moving quickly down the aisle. By the time I reached the exit of the spacecraft, I felt I was staring through the wrong end of a telescope.
But boy did we haul ass.
We both started running as soon as we hit an open corridor. You wouldn’t think that a human being could sustain a full sprint for five and a half minutes straight, and you would be right most of the time.
We arrived at our departure gate with thirty seconds to spare. I know it was thirty seconds because there was money on the desk and someone was counting down. The desk looked so far away in my tunnel vision that I actually ran right into it. This really screwed up the organization of the betting pool, and it flipped my telescopic vision. Everything looked really really close now.
We found our seats and collapsed into them gratefully.
"Wow, Doc," I said. "That stuff was great. It didn’t even have any side effects."
"No side effects. Right,” said Doc. “Allow me to administer the antidote before our hearts explode and our eyes burst out of our heads."
Doc jabbed us both with needles.
"Now," he said. "In a few seconds we can worry about side effects."
"Really? What are they?"
Doc had just enough time to wink before both of us went into convulsions.
We didn’t really notice much about the flight after that. On the bright side, I think both of us passed out for most of it.
We got off at Ground Station 2. Doc grabbed his bag from the overhead compartment, and I waited eagerly to collect my trunk. The station was spacious and unadorned. Doc walked over to a train kiosk while I went in search of my luggage. I found the baggage conveyor where the luggage from our flight was scheduled to appear. Several of the other passengers had joyous reunions with their luggage (some of the newer models were programmed to hug their owner upon reunion) but I waited in vain. Doc had time to investigate trains, book us a pair of tickets, get something to eat and take a nap before joining me at the empty luggage carousel.
"Maybe they sent your luggage ahead to GS 3," he said.
"Good idea. Let’s go ask the man at the luggage desk."
We waited in line for an hour or two only to discover that the attendant was also from the system.
"You can never tell just by looking," I said.
"Other than the sign saying ALL DESKS STAFFED BY THE NOT-QUITE-HELPFUL PEOPLE OF THE SYSTEM, there was really no clue at all," said Doc supportively.
"I wonder where my luggage is?" I asked.
"Did you check the luggage tracking console?” asked Doc. “It’s a little card with a chip on it that receives position data from the trunk."
"I remember seeing something like that."
"Where is it?"
"I packed it,” I said. “I thought I might need it later."
I saw Doc reach into his pocket and curse softly. He must have a hole in his pants.
"We have 34 hours and 30 minutes until our train leaves,” I observed. “I should probably buy a book to read or something."
"I know for a fact you packed your wallet in the trunk,” said Doc. “Secondly, I looked into train tickets. Trains leave every half hour, and we can buy tickets at any one of those vending machines along the north wall."
"But we have train tickets. Our train leaves in 34 hours and 30 minutes."
"It turns out," Doc continued, "that in order for our return flight option to be valid, we have to take the train that we booked as part of our trip. However, we can go to GS-TT 3, get everything we need, take a train back here to catch our own train back to GS-TT 3, and get on our flight back to OS 3 and the Delineator."
"Just follow me."
Doc led us toward the trains. He stopped at a machine to buy two tickets, then boarded a train. I kept telling him that this wasn’t our train, that our train didn’t leave for a day and a half, but he just sat down like he belonged there. I felt it was my duty as captain to accompany my crew when they went into any danger ranging up to semi-worrisome. If the danger became worrisome or higher, I was out of there.
The train ride from GS 2 to GS-TT 3 took a few hours. Doc grabbed his bag from beneath the seat, and we walked out into the station.
"Oh," said Doc. "So that’s what TT means."
"What do you mean?"
The station was crammed with vendors. There were desks and kiosks offering every kind of tour imaginable. There were beggars moving among the tourists and business people. There were small carts selling every kind of food imaginable made from every kind of unsafe meat imaginable at prices only slightly lower than the cost of a small goat.
"Can’t you tell? TT stands for Tourist Trap," said Doc.
"I thought the TT stood for Turtle and Tortoise. Both of those words start with T."
"An excellent guess,” said Doc. “Perhaps you are right after all."
Doc bought me a pony ride while he wandered off into the station to procure the needed supplies. I’m sure there was a pharmacy or medical depot somewhere in the station, but as I watched Doc from the line for the pony ride, he seemed to be constantly in furtive discussions with shadier and shadier characters. Finally the characters got so shady that there wasn’t enough light to see them clearly.
Fortunately the pony ride started soon. They took us on a very slow trek around the outside of the ground station. There wasn’t much scenery, and the surface of 5 New Yödelsburg was quite cold. I had packed a very nice coat in my trunk, but the trunk had been lost by that awful man from the system and as a result my whole body was going numb.
Worse, my pony seemed to have a great deal of interest in stopping to nibble at every patch of exposed greenery we passed. Fortunately, there wasn’t much, because each time he stopped, the horse behind us would run right into my horse’s backside. The rider on the other horse kept cursing at me, even after I pointed out that I was not the one stopping for a snack.
The guide ahead of us periodically pointed out various features of the barren and frozen surface of the planet. He led us back into the space station and directly into one of the many bustling thingamajig-filled markets.
"Oh look, a local market!" said the guide. "What a surprise! Look at all the handcrafted goods. Oh, and what great prices! Okay, tour’s over. Bye bye now."
I desperately wanted to buy several things in the market. I did not know what most of them were, but I still craved them. I knew I would need my wallet on the trip, so I had packed it in the trunk. Doc was nowhere to be found, and I was forced to leave the market empty handed.
I also wanted to stop for a snack. My negotiations with the airport authorities for a free lunch did not go well, but I did manage to find enough spare change in my pockets to buy a sandwich and an ice cream cone.
Doc returned a little while later. He looked much more relaxed. That was good. I never want my crew members to be too tense. It interferes with their constant readiness for action. Then again, I don’t want them to be too relaxed. That interferes with constant readiness as well. They should be half tense and half relaxed.
"Doc, you look very relaxed," I said.
Doc nodded and smiled.
"You shouldn’t be too relaxed,” I reminded him. “You need to be half tense and half relaxed, so you are in ready constantness for action."
We had some time before we had to catch our train back to GS 2 so we could catch the NTFBNTS train back to GS 3, which was where we were now. We went to a store with a bunch of consoles connected to a local AI and challenged it to a variety of video games. I set my console on Ridiculously Easy, and was proud to say I beat the AI almost more than half of fifty percent of the time.
Doc set his console on a laser light show.
We caught the next train back to GS 2 just in time to grab our seats on the NTFBNTS train back to GS 3. The attendant who stamped our tickets seemed very pleased that we were following our itinerary.
As the train was pulling out of the station, Doc got a message from Decker on his Personal Computer Widget.
"That’s interesting," said Doc.
"Decker just received a message from the trunk. The trunk realized that you had packed the primary receiver, so it sent a message to the ship."
"So they found my luggage, then?" I asked.
"Actually the trunk found itself," said Doc.
"Where is it?"
"It’s at Ground Station 2. It was there all along, but they didn’t unload it until it was time for our train to leave," said Doc.
"The train we’re on right now?" I asked.
"Exactly. It was our responsibility to pick up the trunk and transfer it to the train before we left."
"Oh. How were we supposed to know that?" I asked supposingly.
"The clerk at the baggage check desk told us," said Doc.
"Was he the one that didn’t speak any language at all?"
There were several minutes of silence.
"So they found my luggage, then?" I asked.
"Actually the trunk found itself," said Doc.
"Where is it?"
Doc paused for several seconds.
"We’re not doing this again," he said.
"I sent a message to Decker using my PCW,” said Doc. “He’s a little more lucid now. He and Steve explained the problem to the trunk."
"The OINKER on Orbital Station 3."
"Right. I was just making sure you remembered," I said.
"Thank you,” muttered Doc. “It’s always important to keep the crew on their toes."
"Yes. You need to be half tense and half relaxed so –"
"Ready constantness and constant readiness?" Doc interrupted.
There was a pause.
"So they found my luggage, then?" I asked.
Doc coughed and reached into his pocket. I saw him swallow a small pink pill. It looked like the one he gave Decker. I hope Doc hadn’t strained his back too.
"Steve and the trunk have it all planned out,” said Doc. “The trunk will arrive at the Delineator an hour or so after we do."
The train ride was not too bad, but not too good, just as it was supposed to be. We had to pass through security again before boarding our flight back to OS 3. Again there was one really long line, and two other short ones.
"We should go in one of the short lines this time."
"Um, those lines are for native Yödelsburgians only," Doc said quickly.
I looked, but I didn’t see any signs. The security guards at the two stations looked very young and attentive. They were a credit to their profession. From what I could see, the guard at the end of our line was old and a little bit shady. Not so shady that you couldn’t see him, but he would definitely be a good man to have around on a hot day.
"I am going through the short line," I said. "It will give me a chance to let them know about my trunk."
Doc bailed me out of the holding cell a few hours later. I had no idea they were allowed to search you like that.
We got on the flight. Doc had his bag of medical supplies, and I was aching in strange places. The flight was short, and soon we were back aboard the Delineator.
"Hey guys," said Decker from his chair.
"How are you feeling?" Doc asked as he moved across the cabin to examine him.
"Everything’s pretty much okay now,” said Decker. “Those pills you gave me really put me out of it. Then Steve and I worked on some exercises for my back. We got into some yoga, and then we talked about using meditation to expand our minds."
"Steve is into meditation?" asked Doc.
"Sure!” said Decker. “We kind of got to be friends."
"Isn’t he a superpowerful self aware computer with tremendous calculating power?" Doc asked.
"So how did he get into meditation and yoga?"
"Well, he was kind of curious about the painkillers I was taking, and really the whole concept of painkillers and drugs in general, so I wrote up a quick modeling program for him to try it out," said Decker.
"Are you saying you got Steve high?" Doc asked.
"Yes, but in a very mathematical sort of way," said Decker.
"I didn’t think those psychedelic colors were on Steve’s display module when we left. Damn hippy Artificial Intelligence!" I said from the back of the ship. I was waiting for my trunk.
"So what happened?" asked Doc.
"We had some really great conversations about the universe and everything, said Decker. “Time really flew by. I’m feeling a lot better now though."
"Did you update the glitches?" asked Doc.
"Oh yeah. All those old glitches are gone,” said Decker. “We’ve got some great new ones that will really drive you crazy."
"Are the engineers going to be mad we got their OINKER stoned?"
"Probably. We might want to leave soon."
"What’s the status of the trunk?" asked Doc.
"I’ll ask Steve,” said Decker. “Steve says that the trunk will be here in 11 minutes and 13 seconds, and that you shouldn’t be so tied to material possessions, man."
"Great. I’ll tell Dave," said Doc.
"It’s Captain Dave!" I shouted at them from the back. Shouting is always a sign of good captainness.
Decker and Doc prepared the ship for departure. I would have helped, but my trunk was almost here.
Finally there was a beep at the airlock. I went to open it, but the trunk had already let itself in. It beeped at me, then floated purposefully back to my quarters and began to unload itself.
"Decker, do we have clearance for takeoff from Steve?" I asked.
"Steve says ‘Sure, man, whatever you wanna do’."
We almost collided with a tanker ship from the I’m Leaving As Soon As I Turn 17 system. The pilot was almost certainly a disgruntled 16 ½ year old, but I skillfully allowed the collision avoidance systems to maneuver us out of the way.
As we headed out into space, we got an angry message from the head engineer at OS 3, telling us to please not write hallucinogenic programs for his super-intelligent self aware Orbital Intelligence Navigator- Kind Error Reducer 3.
We sent a message back telling him to relax, man.
If they hadn’t lost my luggage, none of this would have happened.
There are two collections of short stories available in paperback and ebook on jonstonger.com (where I get a nice cut) and in paperback on amazon (where I don’t). The novel is being released both in paperback and ebook this summer. Everything will be available soon on the Kindle.