Senator Alan K Simpson
Data is data, but sometimes it lies. Martin looked at the vid screen and cursed. If the Campbellhad really exploded, it would be nothing but space dust now. They had all watched it explode. All their sensors had recorded the core meltdown. The Simpsoneven had burn marks. But improbably, no impossibly, the Campbell was still there on the vid screen. All their sensors verified that fact as well. And now the Campbell was moving again, ponderously heading away from Jupiter towards the inner planets, with Captain Martin ordering his ship to pursue.
Eyeballs also lie. After everything that had just happened, Captain Martin’s eyeballs were very tired. He needed to get away from the bridge to study the data someplace quieter. He sent all the sensor data to his laptop. Satisfied he had collected everything he needed, he headed towards his quarters. On the way there he stopped at the mess for a cup of coffee and something to eat.
The Simpsonwas lucky to have a real cook. In fact, they had an excellent cook. The crew of the Simpson, including Captain Martin, blamed their extra weight on the Chef. “So, what’s on the menu today, Jelly Roll?” asked the captain as he walked into the mess.
Jelly Roll answered by holding out the captain’s personal, steaming coffee mug.
“You got radar-mods implanted in your skull or something?” asked the captain. “How did you know I was coming down here just now?”
Jelly Roll winked. “It’s my job.”
The mug was from the Class of ’59.
“Sometimes it’s really creepy when you do stuff like that,” said Martin. But that didn’t stop him from grabbing the mug with his free hand and taking a sip. Jelly Roll always kept the coffee fresh, and Martin couldn’t remember a time when there had been old coffee in the urn.
“It’s a small ship, Skipper,” said Jelly Roll. “I know everyone’s footsteps, and how they sound against the metal of the deck plating. Your steps are easy to make out because you drag your right heel a little bit. I’m sure that’s the first place you wear out your boot.”
Martin looked down and lifted up his right foot. “Huh. You’re right. Okay, Sherlock. Maybe you should be the captain of this boat. Or at least head of security if we had one.”
Jelly Roll gave a hearty, rolling laugh, true to his nickname. Everything about the cook was too big for the ship, even his laugh. “This mess is command enough for me, Skipper. Every morning I work as if there’s a storm brewing and every night after supper I relax as if we’re sailing for the Southern Cross.”
The Captain took a step towards the coffee urn intending to get cream and sugar, but after his first sip, he realized that Jelly Roll had foreseen that as well. He decided against going back to his cabin to look at the data, but instead grabbed a table in the corner of the mess. There weren’t many places on the Homerwhere a crewman could get away, but Jelly Roll made sure anyone walking into his mess felt as if it was their own.
“Skipper, I gotta get ready for supper mess tonight. Forgive me being rude, but I need to check on the roast.”
“Roast? Fancy for a Wednesday night don’t you think?”
“No, not too fancy if you’re getting us another prize.”
“Don’t celebrate too early. She’s one of ours. We probably aren’t taking her.”
A look of disappointment crossed the chow boss’ pudgy face before dissolving into his usual smile. “Then we’ll celebrate the upcoming rescue of our Earth comrades from their misfortune.” His round eyes blinked a couple of times. “I have baby potatoes and carrots to go along with the roast. And nice homemade gravy too.”
“What if our ‘Earth Comrades’ on that ship are all dead?” asked Martin.
Without missing a beat, the chow boss said, “The crew of the Homerwill still be hungry. They’ll appreciate Old Jelly Roll taking good care of them in their hour of sadness.”
The captain chuckled. “Like usual, you have all the bases covered. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather be Captain?”
Jelly Roll laughed one more time and headed for the kitchen. As the cook opened the door, the delightful aroma of the roast wafted out. Martin’s mouth watered. But he decided against having a snack. He wanted to be hungry when it was time to eat that roast.
He took his coffee and settled into a comfortable chair. He set his laptop on a small table and began to review the data from all the ship’s sensors and cameras. There was a critical point when all of the Homer’ssensors showed the same thing. The Campbellshould’ve exploded. But it hadn’t.
He went back to the beginning. The sensors showed the engines attempting a dangerous cold start, the core heating up and finally reaching critical mass leading to the explosion that should have pulverized the ship. There was simply no doubt in what the sensors showed.
The cameras showed the same thing. But then he decided to try something on a hunch. He put the time signature up for both the sensor readings and the camera feeds side by side on his screen, superimposed over the images. He ran the sequence. There was a discrepancy. It was very small but it shouldn’t have been there in the first place. The sensors showed the exact moment of the explosion .33 seconds before the cameras. Of course, there is always going to be a delay in how long it takes light to travel to the camera. At the last moment, the Simpsonwas not far from the Campbell. Only about two hundred kilometers away. The light from the explosion should have arrived at the cameras within a millionth of a second. Even if it hadn’t, the sensors and cameras should’ve been synched. There should be no gap at all. So what accounted for that .33 second gap? False information? But why would anyone want to do that? The obvious answer was to scare them away. And that part had worked. The Simpsonhad backed away as fast as it could go, almost blowing up its own engines in the process. But if there hadn’t been an explosion, how did the burn marks on the outside of the ship get there? It was still a quandary, but Martin thought he might be getting closer to figuring it out.
“How does our mystery ship look now, Skipper?” asked Jelly Roll.
Martin had been so engrossed in what he was doing that he hadn’t noticed Jelly Roll sit down beside him. The Chef held a plate of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. The captain grabbed one from the plate and popped it into his mouth. “Just one,” he mumbled through a mouthful of cookie. “I don’t want to spoil my dinner when we eat that delicious roast. So when did you have time to bake these?”
“It’s all in the planning. I have another batch baking right now. I’ll take them out of the oven in a few minutes.”
Jelly Roll reached across the small table and turned Martin’s laptop so he could see the screen. “Mind if I check out the sensor data?”
Martin chuckled. “You make dinner for the crew, you bake cookies, and now you want to analyze our sensor data. Is there anything you can’t do?”
Jelly Roll didn’t look up from the screen. He stared at it for another minute. “Why did you put the timeline from the camera feed and the sensors side by side?”
“I was just curious.”
Jelly Roll nodded. “And they don’t match up, do they?”
“No.” The man was amazing.
“So,” asked Jelly Roll, “any idea what’s going on over there?”
The cook turned the laptop away and looked off into the distance for a moment. Then he turned back to Martin. “Well, it’s clear to me that you have a cake problem.”
Martin had just finished eating his chocolate chip cookie and paused before taking a sip of his coffee. “A cake problem? What’s that?”
“You should spend more time in here with me. You’d learn how to conquer the whole solar system. I’ve only got another minute so I’ll make this quick. A cake problem is…no matter how many cakes I’ve baked in my life, I still need to stick in a toothpick to make sure they’re cooked all the way through before I take them out of the oven. Even after all these years, I still have to do that every time. If I don’t, the sponge will usually be either undercooked or overcooked. If it’s undercooked, the sponge will collapse in the middle. If it’s overcooked, the sides will get too brown and it’ll be too dry when it’s ready to serve. The trick is to pull it out exactly when it’s done. Not too soon and not too late. That’s the secret of a good cake. And you can’t do it without checking it with a toothpick.”
Martin scratched his head. “That’s very interesting, Jelly Roll. But what can that possibly have to do with the mystery ship?”
“It’s a cake, Skipper. You need to take a toothpick and stick it in its middle to see what’s really going on.”
“Huh,” muttered the captain. “Good analogy.”
The captain mused on that for a few more moments. Then he said, “I think I might have the right toothpick.”
Martin reached over to a nearby com-box and called the bridge. “Lt. Constance, I need you to start gathering your boarding crew. We’re going back in to dock with the Campbell. I want to know what’s going on inside that ship.”
The speaker crackled before Constance’s voice answered. “But Captain, we got close once already and it almost blew us up.”
“But it didn’t. I’m still working it out, but that ship didn’t explode. That’s obvious because it’s still out there. Somehow…somebody did something to our sensors and cameras so we just thought it exploded. Some sort of defense mechanism on that ship, although not one I’ve ever heard of. But I think we can modify our sensors to protect against false readings. I’ll explain more in a bit. Out.”
Martin turned off the com-box and smiled at his cook. “A cake problem, huh?”
“That’s one sharp toothpick you’re going to stick in that cake, Skipper.”
“The sharpest,” said Martin, reaching for another cookie.