John was more surprised than anything else: he wondered what he was being hit for today.
Clarence stormed out of the room.
John caught up with him at the elevator.
"Why did you hit me?" John asked, genuinely curious.
"Because you turned your back on the human race," Clarence said, stabbing the "down" button viciously.
"When is this meteor due to hit again?" Clarence asked, with uncharacteristic innocence.
John singed, "First of all, they're asteroids, not meteors, second, there's an entire field of them, not just one, third the Shiva field is due to hit the Earth about 500 years but it will be easier to stop it if we start as soon as possible, and fourth, you don't care."
"You actually have a name for it? What does it mean?"
John looked at him. "Shiva? He's the Hindu god of destruction."
"A Greek or biblical name would have been better."
John frowned. "You think so? Someone else wanted to call it the Azrael field but I thought that might be too easily confused with..."
At that moment, a "ding" announced the arrival of the elevator. Shaken out of his exercise in naming, Clarence got on.
The doors closed.
John's fist stopped them from closing.
"People may ask why I do this..." John said in rising fury, "...but they will NOT forget who I am!!"
The doors opened.
"*I* am John Pappalopogous!!"
John, Clarence, and Jimmy Traverso were watching a cyborg mouse scampering around its cage.
Jimmy, the cybernetics expert, said "It's not how well the mouse can dance, it's that he can dance at all."
"Well, he's not dancing," John observed.
Jimmy's shoulders slumped, "Still...it means it's safe to try on humans," he said.
The other two glanced sharply at him.
"Well, safe-ish," he amended.
Bobby Natalia was a propulsion specialist who wanted to take the rest of them to the asteroid field. Before he could do that, he had to convince everyone that he could actually do it.
"There! See? It works!"
John, Clarence, Jimmy and Bobby were gathered around a console for Bobby's test.
"Everything is working perfectly!"
Just then, a red light on the console began to flash.
"What does that mean?" Clarence asked nervously.
"Oh that? It's nothing!" Bobby said quickly.
"But what does it mean?" John persisted.
"Well, it means that it exploded..." Bobby said casually. When he saw the others' reactions he hastily added "...we were going to destroy it anyway, it just happened a little early!"
"I don't know..." Clarence sounded skeptical.
"I'm sure it's just a glitch." Bobby reassured him.
"You call exploding 'just a glitch?'" John asked.
"Well, compared to not working at all." Bobby said defensively.
Emanuel Gideon seemed remarkably calm for an explosives expert.
"So we're going on this mission..." Clarence explained.
"Right," Emanuel responded.
"...and we may not make it back." Clarence continued, glancing at Emanuel to see his reaction.
"OK." Emanuel replied, his face showing nothing.
John and Clarence were in Emanuel's office, which seemed rather messy for such a composed man.
"Do you still want to go?" Clarence asked.
"Yes." Emanuel said without so much as a moment's thought.
"Well, good!" Clarence looked relieved.
"Just a minute!" John interrupted. "What do we do when we get to the asteroid field?"
Emanuel calmly turned to John and simply said "Boom."
"I can get us to the Shiva field," Bobby announced. He was talking to "The Team" (Clarence, John, Jimmy and Emanuel) gathered in his office.
"Good!" Clarence said; this was the first piece of good news.
"But it will take us 300 years," Bobby continued. Clarence's face fell.
"We can't possibly survive that long!" Clarence, his face reddening, was clearly furious.
"280, if I cut corners...but we'll have to sustain greater acceleration."
"Still!" Clarence said.
"Regular human beings couldn't live that long." Jimmy said. All eyes turned towards him. "But we could if we were modified."
"What do you mean?" John asked.
"If you let me change us into cyborgs we could do it." Jimmy explained.
"You mean, for this mission to be successful we have to become cyborgs?" Clarence asked.
"Yes." Jimmy responded.
"Then count me out," Clarence said dismissively and got up to leave.
"It's a small price to pay to save humanity," John said.
"That's easy enough for you to say, you're not going!"
"I'll go," John said after a moment.
Clarence was so surprised he sat back down.
"You can't possibly be serious, what would you do?"
"We have 300 years to teach me," John said.
"He's right." Emanuel said, breaking his characteristic silence, "We should all have back-ups."
"But what Jimmy is asking..." Clarence started.
"Is MINOR compared with what we are trying to do!" John cut him off.
"You really believe that?" Clarence said, hesitantly.
"Yes." John said firmly.
Clarence looked at the rest of the team, who had their mouths open.
"Well...OK then." Clarence said, pushing his glasses back up on his nose.
"I give you...The Team!" Some VIP was introducing them...again. These appearances were important, so Clarence said, to get the world to support them.
Clarence came out first. A hulking, hesitating (he wasn't used to his new body) robot-like form. He stood over 8 feet tall. The only thing left of his old body was his head; the rest had been sacrificed to make him what he was: a cyborg.
The rest of The Team followed, some more readily than others, to stand in a line on the stage. They were in Carnegie Hall, but the presentation was being televised all over the planet.
It started in the back of the hall, the boos. They soon spread to the entire auditorium.
Some members of the Team recoiled as if struck.
John strode forward and declared "These guys have given everything...EVERYTHING to try and save you. Why are you booing them?"
The hall gradually fell silent.
"I don't give a damn what you think of me, but THEY are trying to save you, and you *will* respect that!"
It began in the back of the auditorium. People started clapping. Then they stood up and clapped. After a moment the Team was the subject of thunderous applause. Some of them were bewildered.
Emanuel turned to Jimmy. "I liked it better when they booed," he said in a low voice, but none of them wanted to rain on John’s parade.
The day of the launch was fast approaching. Everyone was trying to solve last minute issues.
Everyone, that is, except John. He spent most of his time watching TV to make sure he was on the news.
"What the hell is wrong with channel 11?! Every other station has a story on the Team except them!"
Clarence, who was pretty much the only person who could stand to be around John for any length of time, said “Maybe they don't have any information on us?"
John spent the next several days making sure channel 11 was fully informed.
The show that finally aired on channel 11 was...somewhat less than complimentary of John.
"John Popolupuosgus is perhaps the weakest member of the Team, in several ways..."
The show went on to list them in full detail.
Jimmy turned off the set.
"Well, what did you think?" Jimmy asked John. If it were possible for him to cringe at this point, Jimmy would have been cringing.
"What did I think?" John responded "What did I THINK? I got more air time then the rest of you put together!" John trumpeted. "I hope that none of you are jealous." He turned back to the TV to see the highlights again.
"Well, that could have been worse," Emanuel said to Jimmy in a low voice.
The day of the launch came, and the Team assembled for it. The ship had been christened "Starglider 1" by Bobby. When John first heard the name, he confronted him.
"That's the name from the 'Starglider' game!" John exclaimed.
"All right, so you caught me...it's a catchy name though..."
"We're NOT playing some video game, you know." John said disapprovingly.
"Maybe YOU’RE not..."
Launch day finally came, and the Team flew out to Starglider 1, which was in orbit.
"Now we just have to do one thing. Strap yourselves in!" Bobby said.
"I thought Starglider was a light sail," John said.
"It is...after our initial push," Bobby replied.
"So what do we use for the initial push? An ion drive? Gravity waves?" John asked, buckling himself in.
"No a <cough>
"Bobby, you don't have a throat any more. You can't pretend to cough."
"Alright, a nuke."
"Just a little one," Bobby amended.
"I didn't sign up for that!" John said, struggling with his seat.
"Too late! We've had ignition!" Bobby said.
In space, things don't go boom, so the Team had to be content with being thrown back in their seats.
Bobby seemed relieved. "Well, that worked!"
"What if we had been vaporized?!" John shouted.
"Then Earth would have known that my nuke drive doesn't work." Bobby said mildly.
After a day, they deployed the light sail.
John was not impressed.
"We didn't go 'Whoosh!'"
"Things don't go 'Whoosh!' in outer space." Bobby explained patiently.
“In space, no one can hear you scream,” Emanuel smirked.
"What about when they jump to light speed in 'Star Wars?'" John asked hopefully.
"Well, when do we turn it on?"
"We already did, a few minutes ago. You see..." Bobby started in on a long explanation.
A little ways in, John looked down and mumbled something.
"What was that?" Bobby asked sharply.
"I said ‘Lame!'...and basically, so are you."
The rest of the Team got ready to tear them apart, but, after a second, Bobby just laughed. The team relaxed.
"Why you little..." Bobby launched himself at John. Thanks to the non-existent gravity, he missed by a good three feet, thus saving the rest of the Team from being caught flat footed.
For the first hundred years everything went fine.
John learned, everyone else taught him, there was regular news from Earth, things were fine.
During the next hundred years things began to slip.
Of all people, Emanuel started to go first. The rest of the Team thought it might be because there was nothing to blow up.
For a year, the Team racked their brains for something for him to do, but there was nothing. It wasn't like Emanuel was unaware of what was happening to him, but he seemed powerless to stop it. Over the course of 10 years, he found it harder and harder to get up.
After that, he wouldn't leave his cabin. After another year, he would just sit there.
And then things got bad.
During what appeared to be a period of crisis, they stopped getting transmissions from Earth.
Over the next 100 years, everyone went downhill.
Now, strangely, John fared better than the rest of the crew. Maybe it was because he was learning new things, but he actually built a robot during the voyage.
He called it "Joy" and insisted on referring to it as “she.” Joy consisted of over 16 million squares. She could change color to look like a kind of screen on which she could display information. Each square also had some processing power, so the aggregate being exceeded even the most powerful computer.
She was very bright but only did what she was told to do; creative thought eluded her. Finally, John grew disgusted with her and left her to her own devices. She just sat in a swarm.
A few years after that, the ship was a pretty depressing place. Lights flickered, the crew didn't bother to move, nobody paid attention to the mission, things were pretty dismal.
If anyone had bothered to notice, Joy was exhibiting strange behavior. At first, she tried to expand until she reached the limit at which her various pieces could communicate with each other. This would have been a "cloud" several kilometers in diameter, but John had not bothered to make the required adjustments, so she was limited to all one room.
Then she took to wandering around the ship and looking at things. Most of the crew just sat there while she wandered about.
It was at that point Starglider hit a meteor shower.
Several days out from the field, the alarms started, but the crew didn't respond to them.
When the ship actually entered the shower, things got "interesting." A meteor punctured the hull and luckily didn't hit anything vital, but it did "wake up" Joy. When she looked through the hole; she could see outside the ship.
Just then another, smaller meteor tore through where she had just been; taking a few pieces of her in the process. The effect on Joy was profound. Holes were all well and good but she drew the line at losing bits of herself.
She immediately set about to find John. He was in his "cabin" (a somewhat misleading term since the Team didn't require rest, but, in order to maintain a semblance of sanity, the different Team members had laid claim to various portions of the ship as "theirs." John had chosen a workshop.)
She whirled around him enough times that he actually looked up. By that time, several meteors had perforated the hull. It was fortunate that Joy and the Team didn't require air.
By the time John finally reacted, the ship was on a collision course with a rather large meteor.
John shuffled after Joy into the control room. He shoved a catatonic Bobby out of a nearby chair so that Bobby fell to the floor. Bobby made no comment.
John stared disinterestedly at a display, which showed the ship on a collision course with a 10km asteroid, and he played with some controls.
Joy buzzed excitedly around a control that would, if activated, avoid the Rock. After a few minutes of John doing nothing, Joy became distraught. John barely noticed.
Joy had found a remote that controlled old TV programs. By accident, she displayed a news program. On it, several newscasters were discussing the Starglider and her crew.
"What is the point of bringing John Popolup with them?! I mean the man is literally useless!"
The other talking head just shrugged.
This seemed to rouse John. He immediately directed the Starglider from her collision course with the asteroid.
"They got my name wrong..." he muttered.
After that episode John was more active. At first he just went around, replacing lightbulbs. Later he roused the other crew members by asking them questions about Joy.
Joy seemed to have turned a corner. She had thoughts of her own these days, whereas before she would only take action when someone asked her to. Now she helped with repairs on the ship and even initiated some repairs on her own. The point was really driven home to John when he took a close look at her.
He was looking over some code when he noticed a section he did not recognize. "What's that?" John pointed at a screen.
Joy buzzed over and took a look at it.
"It's code, stupid." (Joy had picked up some attitude at some point).
"No, I mean I didn't write this!" John pointed out.
Joy looked at it a moment more. "You're right" she said.
"How do you know?"
"Because this section is better formatted than something you'd write: it uses tab characters instead of spaces."
"Spaces are perfectly valid," John said defensively.
"Yes, but what happens if the other guy uses different spacing for indents?"
"How do you know?"
"Because I'm John Popolupuosgus!"
"And you’re always right?"
"No...sometimes I'm just less right."
Joy buzzed away in disgust.
"Hey!" John called out, Joy turned back to him. "If I didn't write this then who did?"
Joy suddenly found something interesting about a nearby panel.
"I said. if I didn't write that then who did?" John repeated.
Joy convulsed and mumbled something. It wasn't till later that John realized that this was her idea of a sneeze.
"What was that?" John asked.
"I did." And Joy buzzed out of the room.
After that, rousing the rest of the crew proved quite easy. Strangely enough, all they had to do was mention that they were going with John's recommendation, and the person in question snapped right out of it.
The Starglider turned around and started decelerating for the approach to the Shiva field.
The Team selected an asteroid to be their base and with characteristic practicality, called it First Base. Then they got to work on the mission, or what Emanuel liked to call "Boom."
Rather than resenting her job, Joy seemed to derive purpose from her work. Her ability to change shape and work in vacuum made her indispensable.
A few decades into the mission they had gotten most of the "easy" asteroids out of the way. The "hard" ones were left.
"And this one is a good 30 km in diameter." Emanuel was saying.
"That's...difficult," John said.
Joy spelled out "What he said!" but remained silent.
"So how do you propose dealing with it?" John asked. Joy was watching the exchange as if it were a tennis match, changing into a huge eye to watch each person.
"I think it would be best to implement a change in course instead of blowing it up." Emanuel sounded disappointed. The giant eyeball turned to John.
"I suppose so, would you PLEASE stop that?!" the last bit was directed at Joy, who turned into a child and started to slink away.
"Look Joy: you can listen, just don't do that anymore!" John said to the retreating form of Joy. She immediately bounded back, taking the form of a puppy.
"So how do we change its course?" John asked of Emanuel.
"I should have known." John looked down; Joy wagged her tail.
They were placing charges for the course change when something went wrong with Clarence's suit.
There wasn't much of a suit, seeing as everyone’s bits had been removed, but there were still a few things that had to be protected. The oxygen exchanger was one of them.
It turned out that the brain needed oxygen, but at a very specific level. The oxygen exchanger was responsible for this. In Clarence's case, a loose bit of rock had hit the exchanger in just such a way that he had to be taken to the ship immediately. Unfortunately, there were lots of bits of loose rock going every which way, so anyone helping Clarence would run the risk of having the same thing happening to them.
John and Joy were the only people close enough to help.
Ordinarily, John would have said something like "Better him than me." But, in the moment, he found himself helping Clarence to an air lock.
John got Clarence inside and removed the loose bit of rock that had caused so much trouble.
"What are you doing? Why did you help me?" Clarence asked when he could speak
John stopped and wondered himself. "I don't know. I just did what I thought was right." He said in the bemused tone of someone trying to make sense of his actions.
"Well, I never thought I would say this, but I'm glad you're here." Clarence sat up and patted John.
Joy had morphed into someone with very long arms and was hugging him.
It was 50 years into the mission when John got some bad news.
At a status meeting, Emanuel spoke up: "Gentlemen, I have some bad news."
"It appears that the Shiva field is much larger than we thought, and more asteroids will hit Earth."
Joy had reverted to her eyeball form, a sure sign that she was worried.
"Do we have enough time to stop all of the asteroids?" John asked, Joy turned to Emanuel.
Joy turned into a scared little girl who was sweating, a lot.
"Even if we step up our schedule, I think there is a 50% chance that a big asteroid will get through."
"So, what you're saying is, that it's even money we can stop all the rocks?"
"That's the gist of it."
"So what's the bad news?" John asked innocently; joy morphed into a giant hammer, hitting him on the head.
John watched from the bridge of the Starglider, as the last asteroid assumed a new course.
"Well, that's the last of them!" Clarence sounded relieved. "We did it! We saved the planet!"
"Yipee." John observed.
"What are you going to do now that we're done?"
"There'll always be something."
"See what I mean?" John said, turning to Joy, who had assumed the shape of a question mark.
"There's an asteroid that is on course to hit North America if we do nothing." Clarence informed him.
"But we don't even know if the Earth is inhabited at this point!" John protested.
"Hello?" came a scratchy voice over the intercom.
"It figures." John mumbled. "Who's this?" He asked more clearly.
"This is the United Nations in New York;" said the scratchy voice.
"So North America is still inhabited?"
"Yes, and we've made some advances since your time." The scratchy voice continued, "Not the technological kind, but everyone down here has learned to live in peace and harmony. We only just turned back to the stars," the voice finished.
"It figures," John said under his breath.
"I mean, we'll do whatever we can to stop the asteroids!"
"There are asteroids heading for us?" replied the scratchy voice; Joy morphed into a man with no brain.
"Yes, well no; well not as many!"
"As many as what?"
"As there were before!" John answered, raising his fist to emphasize his point. Fortunately, this was an audio-only channel, as John's gesture, as he was a cyborg and all, was rather threatening.
"But there's still at least one headed our way?" the voice pressed.
"Well...yes and no; which is to say yes, there is one." John said.
"When is it due to hit?"
John did some quick calculations. "In about a month, can you evacuate by then?"
"No...there will be panic when people find out..."
"Well, it's not going to hit."
"But you just said..."
"I will stop it." John cut the voice off.
"But if you can't..."
"Whatever the cost." John cut him off again. Joy had morphed into a giant head, which nodded frantically.
"So we fly by and drop a bomb and that destroys the asteroid?"
John was reviewing Emanuel's latest plan to stop a rock from impacting on North America.
"Yeah, it'll probably work."
"There's a chance that a piece of the asteroid may still be large enough to do some damage." Emanuel explained.
"So what do we do if that happens?"
"We drop another bomb and blow that up."
"Well, OK then."
A week later, Emanuel dropped the bomb that would destroy the asteroid that would hit North America.
Then he said something that John had been dreading.
"Well, that's interesting."
"It didn't work, did it..."
Joy had morphed into her giant eyeball form and was watching the exchange between John and Emanuel.
"A piece of the asteroid is large enough to cause some damage."
Swivel. Joy was now looking at John.
"Wonderful," John said without enthusiasm.
Swivel. Joy was now looking at Emanuel.
"But it won't hit any cities. It’ll hit the ocean."
"That's good!" John said somewhat more enthusiastically.
"But it will cause a tsunami when it hits the ocean."
"And it will hit near New York."
"That's very bad."
Joy morphed into a person being crushed.
"So, we need to drop another bomb?"
"Yeah, I think that would be a good idea."
Joy morphed into a mushroom cloud.
"Now what!?" John was exasperated.
"The launcher has malfunctioned: the bomb jammed the mechanism."
"So no bomb?"
"It looks like it."
"Why is it I'm not surprised?" John looked up as he said this. Joy morphed into a man face palming over his head.
"Couldn't we just fix the launcher?"
"If we had enough time we could, but as things stand we need to do this in a couple of hours or it won't matter."
"So what are our options," Joy perked up "aside from letting the rock hit?" Joy looked depressed.
"I guess we could use the Starglider as a bomb." Emanuel went to scratch his face, realized that he would probably damage his head with his cyborg hands, and gave up.
"You mean use the most useful thing we have available to blow up the asteroid?"
"It was just an idea." Emanuel looked hurt.
Bobby fiddled with his console and then chimed in: "I've set an automated course for the Starglider. All we have to do is get close and then activate it."
"So the whole team will be with me until then?"
"Thanks." John said.
"And just because you're blowing up the Starglider, doesn't mean that you don't have to study!" Jimmy was lecturing John before getting on the shuttle. Joy had morphed into a giant finger that was shaking at him.
"Yes Jimmy." John said, using his best child impersonation. The rest of the Team sniggered.
Jimmy glared at the rest of the Team, but got on the shuttle.
The door closed.
"Like hell I'll study!" John shouted at the door. Joy morphed into a rebellious teenager. "C'mon, Joy!" John headed for the cockpit.
John pressed a button. A sound, indicating an error, occurred. John sighed and looked at his screen.
"So you need to get to the shuttle," Bobby's voice came over the loud speaker.
"I don't need to get to the shuttle because there was some sort of error running the program."
"What sort of error?"
"It seems the inverse neutrino beam needs to be employed manually."
"You sound like a bad Star Trek episode."
"I don't make up the errors, I just read them."
"What does it mean?" Bobby asked.
"I'll have to stay on board the Starglider in order to detonate the bomb."
There was a pause, then Bobby said "That's ridiculous!"
"Isn't it? But it's what I have to do."
"Couldn't you just program in a course?"
"Yeah but then how would you see how much I've changed?"
"I said never mind."
"I heard you."
"Then why'd you say 'What?'"
There was a pause as Bobby thought. "Because I didn't believe what I was hearing."
"Well, believe it."
"There's only one thing that we actually have a chance of determining." John continued.
"And what's that?"
"How we die."
Another pause. This one longer than the last one.
"You're serious?" Bobby asked.
"Yes," John said and closed the channel. He sat silent for a while then said "You don't have to stay here, Joy." He said, looking at the robot, who was currently not taking a form, instead existing as a swirling whirlwind.
She chose that moment to morph into a screen that said "I'm not leaving."
"But the plot," pause, "such as it is, says that you're supposed to lure me into a shuttle so we can escape!"
Joy spelled out "I know, but I'd rather end here."
"But the story!" John protested.
"Damn the story, full speed ahead!"
John was going to protest further, but the ship chose that moment to lurch. The Starglider accelerated towards the asteroid.
"Still...if I've gotta go, then at least I have good company." John admitted. Joy flipped happily.
# # #
It's a popular misconception that if you blow something up, it will stop.
John and Joy were going to blow up the asteroid, but they weren't going to stop it. They weren't even going to change its course. The center of mass for the asteroid would still hit the Earth, it's just that when it hit the Earth, it would be so dispersed that the pieces that hit would be so small that they would burn up before they impacted the surface. The rest would miss and move on their way.
The problem was that the Starglider needed to be in the right spot when it exploded. That was where John came in.
"Thanks for staying with me," John said to Joy as the Starglider neared its mark. Joy morphed into a heart.
"John, why are you doing this?" It was Clarence's voice on the radio.
"Do you remember the first time we met?" John asked.
"Yeah, I slugged you. Sorry about that, by the way."
"Well, the reason why I didn't care about the Human Race was that I didn't have anything worth living for."
"So, because now that you do, you're going to throw your life away."
"I'm not throwing it away, I'm making a sacrifice."
"The Human Race has learned from its mistakes. It may take a while but we DO learn. I am trying to give it that chance."
"That's not something I would have expected from you." Clarence observed.
"Like bees, members of the human race need to sacrifice themselves at the right time."
"So you're a member of the human race now?"
The Starglider exploded.
The explosion occurred just as planned. It caused the asteroid to expand so that most of the chunks went around Earth, and those that hit, burned up on hitting the atmosphere.
Much later, the Team built a statue featuring John and Joy. At the dedication, Clarence spoke.
"John did not start out a hero. In fact, he was a parasite who was more concerned with fame than anything else. As we voyaged together, however, he changed. Perhaps it was creating Joy that changed him. At any rate he was not the same man that started the journey with us."
"For instance, there was the time that he saved me from certain death when a meteor hit my oxygen mixer; the John we set out with would not have saved but the man he became did. Then, when there seemed no hope John sacrificed himself so that the people of Earth could live. He had come a long way from the attention-grabbing man that we set out with."
Clarence pulled off a sheet covering the statue. It showed John as a human with Joy as a whirlwind over his shoulder. Clarence gazed at it for a time before he spoke.
"As if that were not enough, he managed to give us a feeling of hope in the crew when we faced our darkest hour: when we didn't even know if there was an Earth to save. John's relentless dedication to the mission gave us all hope. I don't know when he changed into the dedicated man he became, but that was the point when he became a hero."
Clarence gazed at the statue some more and said, “He told me that he was sacrificing himself because he had something to live for; perhaps this mission gave him more than anyone else.”
“Goodbye John: we couldn’t have done this without you.”