Waist of Space, part one of the Unlikelihood series, followed Commanders Tarquin Stuart-Lane and Meredith Winstanley; hapless heroes of the Royal Space Regiment; who were sent on a mission to the Moon from which they were not expected to return. There they met with a group of aliens who had forged a living under the surface of the moon, and whose forbears
were testing a new kind of spacegoing vessel that had the ability to be in many places at the same time.
Part two, FLATUS, follows our dynamic duo as they help the aliens build their own multi-locatable craft (and the RSR to build one, too). Will the ships be built and if so, will the drives work? What are the possible effects of having potentially three such vessels in finite space at one time? Will the ineptitude of key personnel result in disaster, or avert it?
FLATUS — Fantastically Large Assembly for Travel at Unbelievable Speeds. The most unlikely spacecraft never built?
FLATUS. Chapter two, scene four
After lunch, the two groups separated again. The technical group had complained that they didn’t want Tarquin with them. Joan had suggested they let him go in exchange for Patsy, a suggestion that Meredith had not taken too kindly, but had eventually agreed to. The admin group returned to the office meeting room and set about designing the systems that would be needed for the project to run as a division of the Royal Space Regiment. Initially, the Borborygmi, by which I mean Chief Marshgass and Methanie, wanted to run the project as a distinct enterprise, not connected to, subsidiary to or otherwise beholden to the RSR or any other human organism.
After many ‘yah, okay, super, smashing’ and other positive reactions from Tarquin, Meredith pointed out that there was no provision in any legislation or administration on Earth for an enterprise, which as she pointed out is a ‘legal person’, to be in the beneficial ownership of anything other than a human being, or another body that can trace its ownership back to one or a group of human beings.
“Doesn’t that fly in the face of your open, non-racist, non-sexist, non-ageist and non-anything-else-ist dogma?” Methanie, in her position of Grand Demander of Explanations and Answers, demanded to know.
“Never come up before,” Meredith replied, “mostly, I suppose, because you are the first non-terrestrial species we’ve encountered. None of our laws make allowance for your particular… erm… attributes and needs. Nor, I suspect, would they know how to do so.”
“I think that’s terrible,” Chief Marshgass said, “we’ve been on your moon, which means under your influence, for half a millennium!”
“Yes, and we’ve known about it for less than five months, and most of that was unofficially and only Tarquin and I. Officially, humanity has known about your presence, heck, your existence, for a little more than four weeks. It might just take a little longer for us to adapt to your needs and attributes, laws that were framed more than a thousand years ago.”
“So what are you saying?” You can see why Methanie got the job of GDEA; she has an uncanny knack of getting to the heart of the matter and asking just the right question to extract exactly the information she needs.
“I think Meredith is saying,” Chief Marshgass correctly assumed, “that this project will remain under her absolute command.”
“Absolutely,” Meredith said.
“Which meaning of absolutely do you mean?” the GDEA asked, “Absolute in terms of your command, or absolutely in terms of precisely.”
“Good question, Methanie. Here comes a good answer: both of them.”
“I’m not sure we can accept that,” the chief said.
“Get used to it, or abandon the project and return to the moon. The choice is yours.”
“Do you have a word for…” the chief followed with what sounded like a rendition on the steel drum of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 Op. 13.
“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘pathetic’,” Tarquin offered, “which, if I may say, is jolly uncharitable of you.”
“Tarquin,” Meredith admonished, “remember your position.”
“Oh, yah. Okay, sorry, withdrawn. Golly. I just said the ‘s’ word without being— ouch!”
Tarquin looked around to see who had slapped his right upper cheek, but could see no-one.
“Who just slapped me?” he asked Meredith.
“Just a little trick we developed,” Chief Marshgass replied, “we call it enhanced post-hypnotic suggestion. You know you deserved a slap, so your mind told you that you’d been given one.”
“Gosh,” Meredith said, “that’s a neat trick. Any chance you can teach me it? I could try it out on Patsy.” Meredith started to squirm as though in the throes of a … perhaps it’s best that we don’t follow that line any further.
“Patsy knows about it, and has set a trigger,” the chief replied, “but I’m not minded to pass that particular secret on to you. Not just yet, anyway.”
Meredith just sat there for a while, trying to recover her composure and to get her breath back.
“So,” the chief said, “let’s get down to setting out how we can work within the restrictions this places on us.”
“Oh, goody,” Tarquin said, “that means you’re not going back to the moon.”
“No, we’re not. This project is more important than our pride.”
“Who’s going to look after them, then?”
“Who’s going to look after whom?”
“What are you talking about, boy?”
“Your lions. You know, your pride of lions. Ouch. I didn’t deserve that!”
“Bloody well did,” Meredith said, “Anyway, Chief Marshgass, I’m glad you’ve decided to stay. I can see great advantages for both our peoples – can I say people?”
“Say what you like. Our translator is culturally aware and gives an appropriate translation, not necessarily a literal one.”
“Wow. That’s some translator. I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could borrow one, is there?”
“It wouldn’t do you any good. It’s specifically designed for Borborygmi and wouldn’t work for you. All it would do is pump Borborese into your ears when anyone talks your language.”
“But if we had one, we could see how it works and try to replicate it to work for us.”
“Why don’t I have our scientists create you one modified to your needs.”
“That would be splendid,” Meredith said.
Once the meeting was over and the humans were preparing to go home for the night, Chief Marshgass called Meredith over. “I have spoken with our chief scientist. He wants to know if you are looking for a translator to translate Borborese to your language and vice versa, or would you prefer the full AI.”
“What does the full AI one do?”
“That’s the one we used first. It learns any language it hears and will translate between it and your language.”
“How long does the learning take?”
“It’s not quick. It learns like a child does, and can be used in a limited way after hearing a language spoken at normal speeds for about twenty minutes. Full proficiency can take as much as a week of near-constant exposure. Would such a device be of value to your people?”
“Chief Marshgass. Our catalogue of languages lists nearly 7000 languages in current use. Fewer than 500 of them have more than a million speakers each, but these account for more than 90% of the world population. In fact, only 23 languages will give access to half the population of the planet.”
“It sounds like you need a level two device, then.”
“Yes. Level one is one-to-one; that’s what we’re using now. Level three is many-to-many. That’s a complex instrument that will hear any language and translate to any language. It’s theoretical, really. No creature is likely to need that kind of device. Level two, though. Many-to-one in, one-to-many out. That’s the machine I’d choose. Based on your own Google Translate, it calculates the language it hears, then translates that into your language and feeds it through the earpiece. It then takes your input and translates it automatically into the language it last heard.”
“But what if you meet someone, don’t know what language they speak, but you have to speak first? How will it know what language to use?”
“Basic stuff. You say anything; even nonsense. The person you say it to will automatically respond in their own language, probably to say they didn’t understand you, and that’ll be enough for the translator to configure itself.”
“How long will it take your scientists to produce a working level 2 translator for us?”
“Not long. They’ll modify their prototype level 3 device. When’s the next shuttle?”
“There isn’t one scheduled for tomorrow, but I can have the Sir Prijs rendez-vous with your scientists the following day.”
“Okay, it’ll be ready.”
Walking away from the facility, Meredith couldn’t help thinking that this was all too easy. Reverse-engineering and… well… plagiarising the translation device was at number two on the list of desired outcomes of this collaboration. They have number one: the copy of the original design specs, and when the robots and computation devices are delivered, they’ll automatically get the third and final element.