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Science Fiction

“C'mon in, Jim. Don't report, don't sit, don't take your coat off, we'll discuss your appointment on the way. We have to move.”

“Where are we going, Reg?”

“We're off to judge the Mad Scientist Day at Saint Somebody-or-Other's Academy across town. Emm was going to do it. She's come down with creeping crud. She's arranged for the Ministry to send her limousine to collect me instead.”

“Just like that?”

“You never did marry, did you Jim?”

“You forget, Reg, I successfully evaded Emm a few years before you even met her.”

“If you hadn't, you'd be a Vice-Admiral and in charge of Space Fleet Intelligence?”

“If I lived. Worked out for you. You have a nice family.”

The two reached the atrium of the General Board building, which busied itself with the work of maintaining and dispatching the space ships of the empire.

“I suppose it did work for me, even if into each life a little Mad Scientist Day must fall. I've told our Iva to meet us there. She's visiting with Ed and the grandchildren. Afterwards, we'll all go for food somewhere and bring something back for Emm.”

“That's very nice Reg. Have you thought about one detail? Whatever you do, these are children. You shouldn't talk to them like junior officers on the Intelligence staff.”

“What, you'll say they need therapy if I do?”

“The children, Reg, maybe not. But I've been hearing some ugly noise from the Surgeon Admiral of the Fleet.”

The pair climbed into the shiny black anti-gravity limousine and whirred off towards their appointment.

At the school, things were not going smoothly, nor to plan. Most of the children were busy setting up their displays on folding tables in the cafeteria. There were chemical reactions that flashed, and chemical reactions that stank, and the inevitable one that sent a fountain of doubtful looking oatmeal through a tube simulating a volcanic eruption. Surveying the choices, Miss Ephraim still had the usual causes for worry, for she had Henry and Hannah.

Henry, at least, she understood. It was so difficult with gifted children who didn't conform. That Henry's parents would then foolishly buy him the Junior Anarchist's Chemistry Set only made matters worse. Consequently, there was no intact manhole cover in the neighborhood. Henry almost finished wrapping the legs of the district water tower with his mix of aluminum strips and iron shavings when the constabulary intervened. The local Commissioner for Keeping of the Peace had a lengthy conversation with Henry's parents. But she quite understood Henry, and understood why he was presently setting out a model labeled “Imperial Space Fleet Orbital Bombardment Round.” It was a large plastic rod painted gray. She would have to make some inquiries about the box next to it, labeled “Propellant,” and the other box, labeled, “Charge.”

Hannah was a different matter. Still, soonest confronted, soonest conformed to the norm. Miss Ephraim approached the bench at the back of the room.

“Now, Hannah, really. Are you sure you want to enter this...collection of scrap...in the Mad Scientist Day Contest?”

“Yes, Miss Ephraim. I will enter it.” Hannah was very grown up for her age, but not so grown up as all that. She managed a very slight stomp of her foot.

“Look, Hannah, I know you have an active imagination but the other teachers and I are very concerned. That's your problem, Hannah. You let your imagination get the better of you. What your projects lack in technical expertise they more than make up for in grandiose conception.”

“I don't know what all that means, Miss Ephraim.” Hannah looked at Miss Ephraim. She tried to grasp the meaning while skipping over the unfamiliar words, as she had been taught, but there were too many.

“She means your junk is awful, but there's always lots of it.” Henry paused in setting out his own project for a moment. He barely bothered to look up “It doesn't matter, anyway, Hannah. I'm going to win.”

“Thank you Henry. Go get some one to tape up your chart on the wall.” Miss Ephraim tried to regain control. “But Hannah, look at this. You have the power cell for a grav car. You shouldn't really have that. Someone could get hurt.”

“I needed a power source, Miss Ephraim.”

“Fine, but you've hooked it up to, what, the diagnostic monitor from the same grav car?”

“I needed a gravitic...gravitic o...oscilloscope.” Hannah eventually pulled the word through.

“And then you hooked that to your mother's salad bowl.” The little voice of Henry rang out.

“I warned you, Henry. Stop. Now.” Not that Henry was wrong. He hadn't noticed the electrical switch from some wall fixture in the bargain.

“But, Miss Ephraim, the math works. See?”

Miss Ephraim was brought back to her immediate problem by the page of very dense mathematical formulas being waved under her nose. Hannah was still speaking.

“I admit the gear is primitive. But even that works. Try it.”

“No, Hannah. I'm not putting your mother's salad bowl on my head. I won't pretend I understand your gibberish here.”

“But Henry painted a plastic rod and called it an Imperial Space Fleet explosive. That's what's stupid.”

“It is not! Here. I'll show you!” Henry reached into his pocket and brought out a lighter, which he had trouble working. He was reaching for the box marked propellant.

Miss Ephraim made a mad dash for Henry's table. “No! Henry! Don't!” She had no doubt of Henry's competence, and managed to catch the lighter before Henry quite worked the trigger. It clattered to the floor. She picked it up and adjusted her hair.

“All right, Hannah, you win. I see what ever happens, you aren't someone I need worry over. But don't be surprised if the contest judges laugh. They are very important people. We were supposed to have Baroness Boddeigh from the Ministry of Education come herself, but she's taken ill, and sent someone else. They won't want to hear about your silliness.”

Miss Ephraim resolved to keep a very close eye on Henry, and to keep the judges away from Hannah's table. After she was past this day, she also intended to have a chat with the administrators about whether Hannah was a good fit for the place.

“I understand you were expecting teachers from the Ministry of Education, Miss Ephraim. Be that as it may, we are what you have at the moment. I promise we'll do the best we can by you, as good as the Baroness would have done, I think. My name is Iva Clevermann, Baroness Boddeigh is my mother, and I was sitting with her when she had to call to cancel. I'll think you find there's nothing wrong with my scientific knowledge even if I am, 'only a commander in the Imperial Space Fleet,' as you put it. This is my husband, Ed Clevermann, who of course would 'only be a lieutenant.' Ah, there is my father, Reginald Watson-ffyre getting out of the ministry limousine, 'only a Vice-Admiral,' and 'only doing a turn as the head of the intelligence staff.' The gentleman with him is James Hargreaves, and I'm afraid he's 'only a commodore,' and that he 'only wrote the standard text on hyperspace mathematics that we use in universities.' Shall we go in? Children can be so fidgety when they have nothing to do.”

“I'm afraid it really is a very mundane science fair for twelve year olds.” Miss Ephraim shrank back a bit. “The children can be so pedestrian. But they are very good at making messes.”

“Not at all, Miss Ephraim. I understood what to expect the moment that Reg, I mean Admiral Watson-ffyre, said his wife needed us to judge the competition.” Hargreaves, at least, seemed to be a kind old man. Admiral Watson-ffyre, on the other hand, was already working the room like a seasoned professional at an Intelligence Bureau conference.

“So tell me, how do you know this? What was your source for this? What causes that smell again? And the other smell? Lunch, you say. Are you certain you should pour the chlorine bleach in the copper bowl?”

Miss Ephraim needed to ask. “Excuse me, is the Admiral always this brusque?”

Ed answered. “Not at all, ma'am. I understand the Commodore had a word with him before they left General Board. Usually he's much worse, when he has a report he dislikes.”

“Or when he's interviewing a prospective son-in-law,” Iva added.

Miss Ephraim deftly steered the group past Hannah's table in the chatter but this led the group straight to Henry. Admiral Watson-ffyre read the little card, took one look at the official chart showing different types of artillery shells, and decided at once to put the lad through his paces.

“What's this lot?”

“Space combat display, if it please you, my lord.”

All right, if you know so much, don't look at the chart. What color band goes around a training round, and what else do you have to remember about 'em?”

“Nothing in 'em, my lord, so no colored band. But they used to be turquoise colored bands.”

Miss Ephraim noticed the other officers nodding approvingly. This must be the right answer.

“And a nuclear tipped round?”

“Radioactive radium yellow but they used to be teal. I don't know why there was a change though.”

“We don't talk about that.”

Watson-ffyre opened the box labeled “Propellant,” took some out and sniffed at it. “What's your source for the composition of this?”

“Public text-book, my lord. But I can't get it to move more my rod more than a few inches when I light it off. I know I'm missing something. Tell me what it is? Do!”

“Yes I can, and no I won't.”

Henry's face fell. Hargreaves leaned over to Miss Ephraim and whispered. “Don't worry, dear lady. Don't think we leave that formula laying around in public for just any twelve-year-old.”

Watson-ffyre had pretty well finished with Henry. He took out a business card, and wrote something on it, then handed it to the lad. “I can't tell you that. Secret, m'lad, don't you know. But talk to your parents. Have them bring you by the General Board office, and hand in that card to the desk clerk. We'll set you up with a tour of the Bureau of Ordinance. There are some things we can show you there.”

“Oh thank you, my lord, I will!”

The Admiral went back to the little group.

Iva noticed Hannah, looking sad and sullen, at the table in the corner. “Only one exhibit left, Daddy. Perhaps we should see that.”

Watson-ffyre strained at the text of the poster. “Using Hyperdimensional Navigation Mathematics to Detect Life in Hyperspace, by Hannah Smedlap. Should that be 'Navigational,' Miss Ephraim. We do have such a hard time getting Space Cadets that can write anymore. Well, your turn, Hargreaves. You too, Iva. You, Ed, go be supportive. You'll be judging Mad Science competitions for Iva someday.”

Hargreaves went over, and sat on the little bench attached to the lunch table in front of Hannah's project. “You're Hannah?” Hannah nodded. “What is this and how does it work?”

“Well, sir, the mathematics are spelled out here.” She handed Hargreaves a sheet. Hargreaves took it and studied it closely. He immediately handed a second copy to Iva, who also read it closely, and nodded approvingly.

Hannah went on. “If a human mind is needed to observe navigational mathematical formula in hyperspace because of uncertainty principles, then, with enough energy, we should be able to see through the hyperspace barrier, and should be able to see other mental energies on the other side.”

“You don't have to listen, if you don't want to, Commodore...Hannah...” Miss Ephraim was silenced. Both Iva and Hargreaves waved their hands, completely unaware of the other, for neither took their attention from Hannah. Ed and even the Admiral were staring intently now.

Admiral Watson-ffyre spoke. “Hannah, look closely at Iva there, and Ed, and Hargreaves in front of you. Have you ever seen any of them before. Do your parents know any of them?”

“No sir.”

“Does the phrase 'Ivens incident,' or the name of the patrol cruiser Ivens mean anything to you?”

Hannah shook her head. These were very odd questions.

“That's an Explorer-class Patrol Cruiser.”

“Thank you, Henry. The judges are talking to Hannah now.”

“Go on with your explanation.” Hargreaves was very grave.

“Well, sir, a gravitic plate tuner is similar to a navigational computer. I reprogrammed this one slightly.” Another sheet of paper changed hands. “The mathematics need some changes too, to reflect the phi brain waves that are sometimes produced by people who navigate space ships. So I theorize that people thinking about navigating space ships might produce a milder reaction.”

“Where did you read that, Hannah?”

“There was a medical journal article, but I only found one. I looked for more.”

“Overlook, something, did we, Jim?” Admiral Watson-ffyre was clearly trying to remain calm, but Miss Ephraim had no idea what was upsetting him.

“How do you test this?”

“You wear the colander. You read the navigational formulas. The thought process produces a ping. If we have other minds present, we get another ping.”

“But of course you never have had a second ping.” Hargreaves was quite precise on this point.

“No sir.”

Hargreaves already had the metal salad bowl on his head. “Right, switch it on.”

The machine warmed up, and chirruped once. Sine waves danced across the screen when Hargreaves read from the mathematical formula in front of him, and were flat when he fell silent. He tested the machine a couple of times.

“Very interesting, Hannah.”

“I need more power, or a more sensitive navigational mind, or perhaps a ship in hyperspace to really test it.”

Hargreaves nodded. “Your idea is very interesting Hannah.

“It is?” Miss Ephraim and Hannah both spoke at once. Ed was already ushering his wife towards the machine.

“Here, Iva. Would you like to try it on?” Ed handed her the metal colander. “You're the navigator. Let's see what it does.”

Hannah smiled, nervous, but also pleased that someone finally taking her seriously.

Iva smiled at Hannah, and sat down on the bench. She put the bowl on her head.

Ed looked at Hannah. “Now what do we do?”

“You flip this switch here.” Hannah turned on the gravity car test module. “Then you flip that switch there.” She turned the light switch on, and sent the current to the bowl.

The reaction of the machine was immediate. It chirupped once as the module registered a mind to scan, and a wave pattern formed. Then it began to ping and chirp wildly, the wave on the monitor becoming more agitated, and eventually complete static.

Hannah started to say, “It's never done that before.”

She was interrupted by Iva, who shrieked, and clutched at the bowl. “Oh, get it off me, shut it off, OFF! NOW! She started to topple from the chair, but Hargreaves reached out and caught her.

Ed switched the light fixture, but for good measure, ripped the wires that linked it to the power cell. “Ah, dammit!” The wires carried a good charge, and insulation was not one of Hannah's strong points. Admiral Watson-ffyre toppled the bowl from Iva's head and sent it clattering to the floor.

The admiral was shocked, and slow to respond. He spoke to his daughter, who was gasping. “Iva, did you see anything? As for you, Ed, you should have known better. I'll speak to you later.”

“Yes, Daddy, exactly, there are creatures here, but in h-space. They didn't see, me I don't think, but I sensed them and saw them. Horrible.”

Miss Ephraim looked on, shocked herself, rooted to the linoleum. “I don't understand...You don't mean to say...”

Hargreaves drew a little closer to the teacher. “Think a moment, dear lady. You had four officers of the Imperial Space Fleet quizzing one of your twelve year old charges over whether she did or did not know certain people, had heard of certain vessels, or had read certain things. We've spent twenty minutes on this one exhibit. It might have been childish imagination run riot as you seem to think but we had to be sure. It could have also been the most uncanny coincidence, or the worst security breach in decades. We tested it. The result speaks for itself. Do the math, and see what adds up.” He handed Miss Ephraim one of the handouts from the display.

He almost immediately snatched it back. “On second thought, don't do the math. The math needs to be covered under the Imperial Defense Secrets Act, so don't even think about speaking about this.” He turned to Hannah. “I'm afraid that we need to have this machine come with us. Make a list of what you have, and give it to Ed, that's Lieutenant Clevermann there, as he gathers everything up. He'll get replacements to you so you don't get in trouble with your parents.”

Admiral Watson-ffyre turned to go, taking his daughter by the arm to steady her. Hargreaves follows, calling out behind as he left, “If you could give Lieutenant Clevermann a box to carry all that, Miss Ephraim, we would be grateful. We'll meet you back at the General Board office, Clevermann. There will be no trouble about expenses. Bring the receipts”

When they were well clear of the school and headed for the official limousine, Watson-ffyre turned to Hargreaves. “I don't understand, Jim. You're always after me about being nicer to people. You were rather sharp with that teacher, threatening her with the Imperial Defense Secrets Act and all that.”

“I didn't do it for that reason, Reg. Did you actually see the look on Hannah's face when I said it? We didn't even remember to give the prize. But her look...it was beatific, and I think we can guess why.”

September 18, 2021 02:06

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7 comments

Leah Bartleson
14:28 Sep 24, 2021

I thought the pace was really nice, and I enjoyed the lighthearted tone and the characters of Ed and Hannah especially! But I was kind of confused by the amount of world in the story. It was actually too developed for a short story! It would be great for a chapter in the middle of a novel, but for me (as someone who doesn't read a whole lot of sci-fi), it was hard to follow at times. The amount of dialogue was also confusing for a reader who has just been introduced to all these characters. It's great that you were able to tell the whole sto...

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Joseph Isenberg
17:14 Sep 24, 2021

Many thanks! I want to say again I thought your story was marvelous. I agree--the word limit is a very constraining factor and there is a little too much. If I were to put it in a longer piece I would have more space for a proper transition than simply quick cutting from scene to scene and hoping. I am working on a longer piece, and so have the characters and the world ready to hand, which I have to be aware of. P.G. Wodehouse used to say "Get straight to the dialogue" with no more than a couple of lines of set up. If it worked for him a...

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Josh Raisher
22:08 Sep 23, 2021

I really liked the concept a lot, but I thought it would help to slow down the pace a little and cut down the cast - in a story this short, it's hard to get a handle on who everyone is and how they relate to each other, let alone all the setting details. Have you read anything by Alfred Bester? I think you'd really like him a lot. Try The Stars My Destination!

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Joseph Isenberg
22:54 Sep 23, 2021

Many thanks! You are right about cutting down the cast--one doesn't have a lot of space to work with.

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John Hanna
01:34 Sep 22, 2021

Interesting story. I'm looking forward to the next one!

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Joseph Isenberg
20:37 Sep 22, 2021

Many thanks!

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Joseph Isenberg
01:06 Sep 25, 2021

I've put up another installment which should be on my Reedsy profile and is under the contest heading of magical things that happen when it rains. https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/0fakum/

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