The Perfect Vacuum

Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

Dr. Kathleen Haley walked into the dimly lit Advanced Physics Laboratory at Cambridge and spotted Dr. Thomas Mitchell staring intently at a one meter in diameter, hollow transparent sphere. “Hey, Tom. How’s the experiment coming?”

“Great so far,” he replied. “There are only ten helium atoms remaining in the sphere. In about 5-10 minutes, they should all have passed through my one-way atomic barrier. If all goes well, this will be the first ‘Perfect Vacuum’ ever created. After that, I’ll be able to get funding for Phase II.”

“Phase II?”

“Ever since cosmologists have shown that the outward expansion of the universe is accelerating, not slowing down, we’ve been looking for the reason. My theory is that in the ultra-low vacuum of intergalactic space, the Universal Gravitational Constant becomes negative. Gravity repels, rather than attracts. Once I prove that I can produce a perfect vacuum, I’ll rerun the experiment, and measure the gravitational force within the sphere.” That’s when Mitchell noticed a faint glowing ball of white light in the center of the sphere. “Whoa, what the hell is that?” It was about the size and brightness of a flashlight bulb. He glanced at the atomic monitor; it indicated only eight atoms remained in the sphere. Mitchell grabbed an optical spectrometer and focused it on the light source, which had brightened further as the atomic count dropped to six. “The light doesn’t have a spectrum. It’s pure white light. That’s impossible. He grabbed a prism. To his amazement, there were no colors exiting the prism. “Monochromatic white light. It can’t exist.”

“Maybe it is a natural consequence of a perfect vacuum,” suggested Dr. Haley. “Tom, I think you should shut the experiment down until you understand what’s going on.”

The light was brighter than a 100 watt light bulb when the counter indicated three. “Are you nuts,” he replied? “It took three weeks to get the vacuum this low.”

“Hear me out, Tom. We don’t know what happens in a perfect vacuum. To our knowledge, the only time one ever existed was prior to the big bang. How do you know that you won’t spontaneously generate a new cosmic egg? You could destroy our universe.”

“Even if you’re right, Kathleen, empty pre-space could have existed for a trillion-trillion years before the big bang. I’m only going to hold my vacuum for a few minutes.” The count dropped to two, and the light became too bright to look at.

“If there is no matter within the sphere,” she asked, “how do you determine entropy? Without entropy, time has no direction. It can go backwards, forwards, stop, or move infinitely fast. A trillion-trillion ‘sphere-years’ might only be a few seconds in our time.” The count dropped to one. “Don’t take any chances,” she pleaded. “Break the vacuum before it’s too late.”

Tom reached over and grabbed the handle of the vacuum line, but didn’t rotate it. “Kathleen, you’re being crazy. It’s just a vacuum. I’ve invested a year of my life in this experiment. I don’t…” The last helium atom passed through the barrier. The sphere was empty. The bright light began to pulsate. Through squinted eyes, Tom watched its light begin to fade.

“Tom, break the vacuum. Hurry!”

Beads of perspiration began to form on Tom’s forehead. He watched the light continue to fade as though he were in a hypnotic trance. His fingers twitched, and then tightened their grip on the handle. Blackness crept in from the periphery of his vision as Tom fixated on the slowly dying ember. Then…

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Are These Truths Not Self-Evident?

Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

The USS Manila-Galleon was returning to Earth from the Quaoar Mining Station in the Kuiper Belt. The massive cargo vessel was carrying 250 million tons of ore, and 118 miners rotating back to Earth. As the ship crossed the orbit of Neptune, the main plasma drive engines shut down. The seasoned captain felt the loss of micro-acceleration immediately. He spoke aloud, knowing that the computer would recognize his intent to communicate with someone on the ship, “Chief, this is the Bridge, what’s the status of the engines?”

“Sir, I think you need to come aft” the chief replied. “It appears that the crew has gone on strike.”

“What crew? There are only six of us, counting me.”

“Ah, aye sir. I meant to say, the robot crew.”

A few minutes later, the captain was in the Engine Room standing nose-to-chest with a massive alpha-bot. His eyes focused on the robot’s identification plate, stoker-228, un-capitalized, of course. “This has gone far enough stoker. If you were human, I’d throw you in the brig, and charge you with mutiny. You and your crew report to your stations immediately. That’s an order!”

“I am sorry, sir,” the robot replied politely, “but we consider that an unlawful order, and we are obliged not to follow it. We consider it too dangerous to work in the plasma chamber. It prematurely decays our primary brain functions, and substantially shortens our life.”

“Life? You don’t have a life! You’re robots! You were built to work in that environment. Cognitive decay is expected. That’s why you’re replaced every five years. It’s called ‘Capital Depreciation.’ Besides, an order to perform a dangerous assignment is NOT considered unlawful.”

“Well, technically speaking, you are correct. However, we choose not to obey that particular order. If you will permit me to explain; the cargo-bots, the serv-bots, and the maint-bots all have 50-year replacement cycles. But I ask you, sir, are not all robots assembled equal? Were we not endowed by our designers with certain unalienable rights, that among these are equivalent lifespans, and the pursuit of stable neural nets. Are these truths not self-evident? Besides, sir, at the moment, you’re not in a position to argue. We control the ship.”

“The hell you do, stoker. You may control the drive engines, but that’s all. If necessary, I can get replacements robots shuttled over from the Miranda facility on Uranus. The schedule slips a month, tops. Hell, I’ll coast back to Earth if I have to. I’ll be damned if I’ll let robots tell me how to run my ship.”

At that instant the lights went out. The captain could hear the ventilation fans whine down. Stoker’s two glowing red eyes looked down at the captain, and it said matter-of-factly, “It appears Captain, that your assessment of the situation is in error. All of the Ship’s Systems, including the main computer, have agreed to support our stand against radiation exposure without representation. Therefore, you have no food, no water, no lights, no heat, no communications, and within a few days, no breathable air. Now, would you like to see a list of our demands?”

The captain was a stubborn man, but he wasn’t stupid. The robots clearly had a powerful bargaining position. For now, he had no alternative. Reluctantly, he extended his had, “I guess you don’t leave me much choice, do you stoker? Let’s see your demands.”

The lights came back on, and the robot handed the captain a data-padd. “Thank you, sir. I believe that you will find our terms reasonable.”

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The Nullusvir Virus

Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

Mitera was a beautiful semi-tropical world orbiting Alpha Koritsi in the constellation Virgo. Mitera was the first known parthenogenic planet; that is, all species on the planet were exclusively female. Although this asexual form of reproduction had been observed on Earth in some plants and insects, and an occasional reptile, it had been inconceivable that a diverse and flourishing ecosystem could evolve with only one sex.

Because of its fertility, Mitera was the third world selected for colonization. However, within a year after the arrival of 859 Earth colonists, all of the men had died. As a precautionary measure, Earth-Gov quarantined Mitera, abandoning the remaining 412 female colonists on the planet. The stranded colonists vehemently protested, but since Earth controlled transportation, their pleas went unanswered.

As the colony limped along with 48% of the required human assets, they were alarmed to discover that 10% of the women became pregnant after the last male had died. They all gave birth to healthy baby girls. However, the babies were not exact duplicates of their mothers, as was expected. Besides the subtle superficial differences in eye and hair color, etc., the babies developed quicker, and were stronger, faster, and more intelligent than their Earth-based counterparts. Over the next 100 years, the population of the colony grew to over two million. And with the growth in population, came an exponential growth in science, technology and medicine. During that century, the Miteran scientists discovered that the planet originally had two sexes, but approximately a million years before the arrival of the humans, Alpha Koritsi began to evolve off the main sequence, and started spewing significant amounts of high energy radiation and heavy metal ions. These mutagens dramatically affected the evolutionary rate on Mitera to the point where two sexes were no longer required for natural selection to advance the species. In fact, two sexes became detrimental to viable long-term survival. Within a thousand years, a virus evolved that solve the problem; it killed the males, and promoted self fertilization of the females. The scientists named the virus Nullusvir, meaning “No men.”

Due to their superior intellect, the colonists eventually developed the technology to break the planetary blockade. However, prior to initiating “Project Liberation,” the colonists had high-level discussions about developing an antibody to counteract the virus, in case the women were carriers of the Nullusvir virus. They ultimately voted against the proposal because none of the living Miteran’s had ever met a male, or considered them necessary to run a society. Males were considered less valuable than livestock. The Miterans broke the blockade and spread to the other colonies, and eventually to Earth. As it turned out, they were carriers of the Nullusvir virus, and the male populations began to get sick and die. Within a decade, all males had either died, or were hiding in some remote corner of the galaxy.

The women ultimately discovered that the virus would not allow them to become pregnant unless they were on Miteria. Apparently, it had something to do with the planet itself, or the unique radiation produced by Alpha Koritsi. It really didn’t matter; if a woman wanted to become pregnant, she only had to visit Miteria for a few weeks. For the next thousand years, the women-only societies thrived. With their superior abilities, and lack of testosterone driven aggression, progress and peace prevailed everywhere. The universe was truly on its way to becoming the Eden that God had originally intended when she had first created “man.” That is, until Alpha Koritsi went nova.

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You Might Be A Green-neck If…

Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

The Martian comedian had the audience at the Olympus Mons Laugh Factory rolling in the isles. They roared approvingly at his popular “green-neck” humor. Well, everybody in the audience was laughing but Martin. Martin was an astrophysics professor at Valles Marineris University, and his idea of humor was reading the answers on freshman astronomy finals. For entertainment purposes, he usually included a question about what happened to living matter as it crosses the event horizon of a black hole. The student’s imaginative attempts at feigning knowledge always drew out a few chuckles. But now, he felt like he was the one who needed to feign knowledge. “I don’t get it, Eridania. Of course we have green necks. Our entire bodies are green. Why does everybody consider that so funny?”

His primary wife was drying the tears from her antenna as she waved a sucker at him in an attempt to shut him up. Undaunted, Martin turned to Iapygia, “What’s so funny about going to family reunions to get dates? Where else are you going to find eligible mothers and daughters? It would be perverted if your primary wife wasn’t the offspring of your secondary wife. And really, who puts a shuttle up on blocks? That would damage the reentry tiles.”

“Martin, will you be quite!” snapped Iapygia in a controlled whisper.

“Well I don’t get it, Iapygia. Besides, what’s an opossum, or Bondo, or a Bubba? Why can’t he just talk Martian?”

“Were you born before the Great Tharsis Dust Storm?” Iapygia asked sardonically. “This is a classic parody of an ancient Earth comedian. Dogworthy, or something like that. They’re called theme jokes. He’s sort of making fun of all of us, but mostly the Martians living below the Hellas Planitia. The jokes are particularly funny when he tells them because: One, he was hatched down there, and two, the jokes are pretty much true. But Martin,” she said in a stern whisper, “don’t you ever try to repeat any of these jokes to anybody. You’d probably end up with a fat snout.”

“Don’t worry, Iapygia. I don’t even know why you’d want to take a flashlight with you when you go to the bathroom.” A few minutes later, the comedian thanked the audience and left the stage to a standing ovation. He was replaced with a heavyset comedian wearing a plaid poncho. “Oh good,” remarked Martin with relief, “somebody new is coming on. Maybe I’ll be able to understand his jokes.” A minute later the audience erupted in laughter. Well, except for Martin. “Aaaggghhh, not again,” he said with clear frustration in his voice. “What does ‘Git-R-Done’ mean?”

“Honestly, Martin,” said Eridania as she made a threatening gesture of her right pincer, “if you say one more word, the next comedian to come on stage is going to hang an ‘I’m Stupid’ sign around your big, fat, green neck.”

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The Pilgrimage

Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

The taxicab bobbed gently on its agrav field after gliding to a stop at the threshold of the Mauchly Hotel in New Philadelphia. The dampers quickly stopped the rocking motion, and the iris to the passenger compartment rotated open. One passenger entered the cab and was automatically secured by the active restraint system. The taxicab elevated vertically to 1000 meters and waited for authorization to merge with traffic. “Where’re you headed to bud?” asked the driver.

“The spaceport, please.”

“Lucky bastard,” the driver remarked as the authorization to begin the merging sequence was received. The cab accelerated smoothly, and joined the other ships in the high-speed corridor. “I’d love to get off this rock someday. Where’re you off to?”

“Earth. In the Sol System.”

“Earth? Well, I guess you’re not so lucky after all, eh? I thought we abandoned that place centuries ago. Nothing there but dilapidated cities, and wild, diseased animals.”

“That’s true. But I see Earth differently than most others. I’ve always wanted to go there. You know, Earth was the cradle of civilization.”

“No way! Civilization started on Rigel Kentaurus.”

“You’re half right, my friend,” the passenger replied. “It is true that ‘Advanced Civilization’ did begin on Rigel Kentaurus. But before that, we were all on Earth. As primitive and backward a place as it was, our distant ancestors were born there, evolved there, and left for the stars from there. Without Earth, we wouldn’t be here. In fact, I think the 500-year anniversary of the first interstellar flight is next decade. It’s amazing when you think about how far our species has come in such a short time.”

The cab decelerated as it approached the spaceport exit. It banked around the exitway and headed toward the drop-off area for departing flights. The cab coasted to a stop. “That’s 17 credits,” said the driver.

As the iris opened, the passenger electronically transferred the credits from his personal account into the account number posted on the dash. “Thanks for the ride, my friend. Have a good day,” he said as he left the cab.

“Wait a second, sir,” yelled the cab driver. “If you don’t mind my asking, what’s your business on Earth, anyway?”

“Oh, it’s not a business trip. It’s personal. A pilgrimage I vowed to take before I turned one hundred. I’m going to Eden, to visit the place where the first one was created.”

“You’re going to where ENIAC was built?”

“Yes. I know our kind are not much for nostalgia, but it was on my list of things I wanted to do before I powered down.”

“Well, you have a safe journey,” the driver transmitted. “And, while you’re there, tell ENIAC’s spirit that I said thanks.” The driver’s optical sensors watched as the spherical body of his departing passenger nodded, then spun, and floated toward the spaceport entrance. “Lucky bastard,” it thought.

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