10 October 2008


By Curtis C. Chen

The guns stopped working on Thursday.

Reggie couldn't understand it at first. He punched the firing switch three times with increasing anxiety before he remembered to check the power relays.

The plasma indicators were dark. No ammunition. Reggie followed procedure and closed the blast shield before flagging and locking his station. It wasn't until he was halfway down the corridor that he realized all the guns had gone quiet.

He reported to Weapons Control, where a platoon's worth of gunners crowded the small space. Reggie squeezed toward the back and found his friend Jasmine sneaking a smoke next to the vent.

"One stick not to tell," Reggie said, holding out his hand.

Jasmine gave him a cigarette. "Those things'll kill you."

"Speaking of, why hasn't Charlie toasted us yet? Looks like every gunner on the ship is here."

"I hear their artillery isn't working either."


In a loud voice, the chief of the watch told all gunners to report to their respective sergeants for new watch assignments. Reggie and Jasmine drifted out into the corridor and past a viewport facing the enemy fleet. The ships looked like they were standing still.

"Are we still moving?" Reggie asked.

"Surely matching course and speed," Jasmine said. "Mission hasn't changed."

On Friday, the engines stopped working.

Reggie hadn't realized how comforting he found that constant rumble in the background. The silence felt subtle but oppressive, like being trapped in a spacesuit. It gave him a headache.

The noise of the mess hall helped distract him. At lunchtime, he sat with Jasmine and some of her friends from Engineering.

"Ionization isn't happening," one of the engineers said, leaning forward. "We're energizing the chamber, but electrons aren't coming free."

"Then why did the guns shut down first?" asked the gunner next to Reggie. "It's all plasma, isn't it?"

"You need more energy for the guns," the engineer said. "They fire short, concentrated bursts. The engines use a continuous stream."

"So something's wrong with our igniters?" said another engineer.

The first engineer shook his head. "At first we thought Charlie was testing a new weapon, some kind of energy dampening field, but they wouldn't use something that also killed their own power."

"Days I wish we still had missiles," Jasmine muttered.

"So what's your theory?" asked the second engineer.

"Maybe it's this region of space," said the first engineer. "We know gravity curves space and time. Maybe there's a similar force here, affecting the strength of electron bonds."

"You can't change the laws of physics!"

"No, but you can bend them."

"So you're saying we should retreat? That's treason," said another gunner.

"I'm saying we should fly around the strange patch. Our reaction control thrusters are still good. If this phenomenon gets worse, it's going to affect more systems. Electricity might stop working. Maybe even our brains."

"I think your brain's already gone funny." The second engineer stood up. "I'm going back to work. To fixing things."

Across from Reggie, a woman tried to light her cigarette. Reggie couldn't remember her name.



Jeff R. Allen said...

Brilliant last nine... though I would have preferred something slightly more hit-them-over-the-head obvious like "woman tried and failed to light her cigarette over and over again".


PS: My understanding of metabolism is that electron mobility is fundamental, and that these poor souls have about 90 seconds left to live... so I wouldn't worry too much about story development if I were you. :)

lahosken said...

Someone switched the universe to decaf!

Chris Roat said...

Sweet story!

From the physics point of view, altering the electric force - say turning it down - would start affecting all sorts of things like chemical bonds, how light propogates, etc. I'm not sure yet how to contemplate what all would occur, and what the first effects would be. (And the patch would most likely grow - or shrink - at about the speed of light.)

Still... this is fiction you are writing, and it's a ton of fun to read! Keep it coming.

steve kopka said...

I love the bending laws of physics. We enlightened modern people look back smugly at "the world is flat," "Earth is the center of the universe," and "movement of bodies takes place on the backdrop of the all-pervasive aether" (or similar Newtonian equivalent), but I'm sure ancestors will laugh at some of our most advanced "fundamental" conclusions. After all, all our data are collected from what very well might prove to be the armpit of the universe, or a "mystery spot" where physics runs all funhouse-mirror crazy.

A bumper sticker: "All physics is local."

Another nice story, Curtis.

CKL said...

Thanks to everyone for the comments!

I'm now trying to figure out what would actually cause this phenomenon, and how one might weaponize it.

Maybe I'll write another 512 words from Charlie's POV...