CHRONICLES OF THE CULTEX:
STELLAR TAPEWORMS

by Thomas Fortenberry


EXTRACTS FROM A HEARING OF THE TERRAN INTERGALACTIC COMMONWEALTH-KOROR XARRON CULTURAL EXCHANGE COMMISSION FOR THE STUDY OF SCIENTIFIC POTENTIALITY, INTERRACIAL COOPERATION AND MISSION HARMONICS (CULTEX CSSPICMH) ON THE OUTTEAU 27 EPSILON MISSION DISASTER.

Voice of Dr. Camden Kosinski, Human astrophysicist and teamleader (hereafter CK): The star shone painfully through the viewer. I say "painfully" because I find it painful to stare the full power of creation in the face. A star is so powerful and so magnificent that it screams out into the universe, blazes with its own intensity, and yet it is totally silent in the void, all the sound coming from your mind. We were so close that space was literally boiling with energy. Streamers of radiation, some visible some not, seethed around the outside of the ship. I could see the surface of the star boiling with the huge bubbles of energy percolating up from its core millions of years before. It was impossible not to be moved by the incredible vista. Even through the screens and filters, the nearly inconceivable power of the nuclear furnace before our research vessel was undeniable.

I have spent hours before stars in similar viewing chambers on similar missions, lost in meditations on God knows what. Some of my colleagues jibe and call it religious ecstasy. Hard to explain, for I am moved in that direction, but it is something different. Almost numbing, it pushes me actually to non-thought, non-awareness; I burn away before the star until we simply are. I've been out among the stars for 28 years. So let them laugh. I still can't explain my feelings, if any, on this experience.

Interviewer: Thank you for further explaining your thoughts. I believe this will counter the earlier statement, "I can't look at stars without fear." Please continue. What happened later that day?

CK: Yes. Well, as moving as the experience was, today there was only time for work. The Tux'gersharesh was moving into position. This is a Koror research vessel, you know, and as with all CultEx projects, we were just part of a joint Human-Koror crew. Even though we retained autonomy over some aspects of the overall mission and completely over our research, much of the day-to-day operations aboard the Tux'gersharesh were naturally controlled by the Kororen.

So, we had to run on their schedules, which were neverending. Whereas we, naturally, design schedules and set the lights and rhythms of activity aboard deepspace ships to artificially simulate a regularly occurring cycle of night and day, the Koror (maybe cause they're reptilian?) find this a total waste of time and effort and simply work around the clock in alternating shifts so that there is no end to the hustling and bustling through the corridors, the lights never dim, and the deep rumble of machinery never ceases. As for our part, we Humans on the mission have found it difficult and even, honestly, at times very trying to adjust to this frenetic lifestyle.

But, the mission is important (and it is much more important that CultEx as a whole succeed), so we all made do and ignored the bad. We divided up the into groups taking shifts that rotated throughout a five day cycle so that we all had to eventually work both days and nights.

Interviewer: And this worked?

CK: Yes, this seemed to work. Nothing out of the ordinary beyond the usual grumpiness you might expect.

Interviewer: It says here that there were complaints of sleepiness, headaches, loss of appetite. One fight, between.... Drs. Ho and Mahdovian. And at least one instance, reported by the Koror crew, where a researcher was found sleeping at his post. Is this correct? Do you not find this highly unusual?

CK: No. It isn't unusual in light of the scheduling. And when we pulled directly into the star's chromosphere, we went into highgear: 24 hour shifts. Yes, we had headaches and were tired and bitchy, but come on, who wouldn't be? It wasn't a problem. Ho and Mahdovian were arguing about a race we had on holo. There was a bet and apparently a question about whether or not Mahdovian had seen the holo previously. It was funny, really. And the sleeper, Harper. You all know, Irvin, he was just sitting in this chair. He was up for 36 hours straight--"

Interviewer: So this, in your view, was not unusual behavior? This did not have a bearing on the events that transpired?

CK: Correct. Well, I mean, it is conceivable that our work load, scheduling and the lack or sleep and closed confines of ship life-- especially when shared with another race-- all could have had some cumulative effect on us, but then so it does everyday. No, I think it was okay. Things were typically SNAFU.

Interviewer: Very well. Tell us about Dr. Irrodi.

CK: Irrodi. Let's see, I actually met Irrodi once months before the mission. He's a sharp bastard. I think he knows more about stellar lifeforms that anyone alive. I mean, what other Koror scientist is as widely known outside the High Empire? We've even got his works translated in Standard and are now teaching with them back at the Academy. Anyway, he's normal, for a Koror. About 200 cms something, dark chocolate brown scales, big snout, red eyes... the whole works. He seems heavier than a lot of them-- they're usually so damned thin-- and of course he's strong as an ox. Didn't usually wear clothing, though none of them do.

Interviewer: About your relationship with Irrodi.

CK: Well, he was nice, I think. Very formal. Always called me Dr. Kosinski-- though more like "Khozhinschkee." Tried to get him to call me Cam like everybody else, but that didn't work. He's all business. Anyway, we worked well together, when I saw him. He's busy all the time, usually couldn't be found. So, I had to arrange meetings periodically with him. Though he'd rush them and leave immediately. He was always in a hurry, and I had trouble making him sit through them. "You move like stagnant water," he'd tell me.

Interviewer: Was there a problem in the relationship? Did he not respect you?

CK: No, nothing like that. He's just a driven man-- or reptile, Koror...whatever. He knows what he wants and that is all he wants. He won't stop to smell the roses, so to speak. Anyway, I found him pleasant enough to work with. Why?

Interviewer: We have reports here from the Koror crewmembers. Dr. Irrodi's implies that you did not like his speech or his work style and made fun of him on numerous occasions. He implies that you or your leadership were perhaps directly responsible for the breakdown during crisis time within the Human crew. How do you respond, Dr. Kosinski?

CK: He said that? Hmm, well, let me start by explaining something. Life aboard a research vessel so far out and cut-off from the Swirl for such extended periods of time can be very hard. Everything becomes tedious and boring and suffocating. It can lead to cabin fever or worse. Hell, look at Void Culture! We lost those people hundreds of years ago. Anyway, we do what we can to pass the time and make life more enjoyable. Games, conversations, holos, pranks-- whatever works. This mission was a mixed blessing. We were onboard an alien ship, so we did have the distractions that offered. We got to explore, play with gadgets, sit back and watch aliens walk, talk, eat, work, shit, sleep, whatever. Okay, even this masturbatory waste of time gets old after a while.

Ever see a Koror eat? They eat stuff mostly raw, sometimes cooked. That's bad enough, just with the smell. But they eat things whole. They've got these crocodilian jaws that just crunch off huge chunks of meat and bone, and then they just swallow it all. Got crops or somesuch internal organ that grinds the stuff up. But watching them, you just get horrified. And the sound of it. Crunch! Crunch! It's enough to give you the willies and wonder if you're next.

Interviewer: You thought they were going to eat you?

CK: No, no! No, I'm just giving you that image as an example. To show how alien an environment we were in. This is why we weren't sleeping and eating well. This is why we often joked around and played games. Just to keep our minds off the Crunch! of neighbors. You see?

Interviewer: And this related to Dr. Irrodi because his eating bothered you?

CK: No. Look, we were all playful. The crew made jokes; I made jokes. We entertained ourselves, because laughter keeps the psychologists away. I often kidded with Irrodi when we met, to try and strike up a lively banter-- jumpstart a fun working relationship. I kidded with him about the translators. You know the old joke about japanimotion. Our lips were always out of sync with our words. I tried to get him to see the humor in it, but he never did. Got insulted with my "childish Human behavior." I kidded with him about Koror nudity. Tried to explain the play on words about them "sunning" us, on a solar research vessel, floating in the face of a sun. I don't know anything about Koror emotions, or even if they have them like we do. None of it worked. He obviously thought I was an ass.

Interviewer: I see. You still have no faults with Dr. Irrodi?

CK: No.

Interviewer: Do you feel your actions and tone set a bad example for the crew?

CK: No. I kept things going.

Interviewer: Do you feel remorse over the lives lost?

CK: That's a stupid question. In fact, this whole hearing is kind of stupid if you ask me. OK, I apologize for the outburst. Listen, I was leading this crew. I'm proud of my work. I want to succeed. I try damned hard. Look at my record. You'll find this is the only time I've been called on the carpet for anything. I'm not a brash man prone to making mistakes.

Yes, of course I feel remorse. The crew was my responsibility. But, I'm not saying that I could have been there for all of them. I could not hold their hands and guide them one by one to safety or to behave in the proper manner at all times. We were all professionals. This team was hand chosen by CultEx for their level of competence, their experience. I was chosen for my part, just like the rest. I hate that anyone was even endangered, much less killed. But, I feel I did my best. This is a terrible tragedy.

Interviewer: Yes, it is. When did you become aware things were going wrong?

CK: Almost immediately. Like I was explaining earlier, I was in the fore observatory that morning. I had been up all night preparing, but I always start my days there. It sets me. So I was there while the ship maneuvered into position. This is all according to Irrodi's calculations by the way, so I'm sure he could give you the cut and dried accounting of it. Let me just say that my crews were prepared. The day before we had entered the photosphere and seeded it with mines. Today they were reentering the photosphere to follow the tapeworms when we flushed them.

Interviewer: The stellar tapeworms were, at this time, dormant. Nothing had aroused their activity?

CK: Correct. We'd been monitoring this clump for sometime. We don't know how long they were dormant, and in fact we didn't have an accurate count on the clump's population. But, according to Irrodi's theories, this was the same clump that had infested Urrachlus some twenty-three years before. Stellar tapeworms appear migratory, and they were within the specified range and the specified wavelengths. It all seemed to fit.

Interviewer: So skip ahead to the rousing and the attack.

CK: We detonated and flushed the clump. It was much larger than anticipated. Apparently the larger, older members of the population lie deep within the base of the photosphere. It was a miscalculation on all our parts. We did not have the capability of discovering them that deep beforehand. I guess it is ironic that we learned a lot about their behavior from this event.

Needless to say, the seed-chain of explosions led them out toward the ship. I think you've all seen the recordings made, how they manifest like thousands of energy streamers, racing from the star toward the ship. We lost contact with Stan and Michelle and Lena within seconds. I presume they were drained and fell into the heart of the star to incinerate. We know for sure that happened to Dick, Lan, Muham, and Fio. We watched them go.

Interviewer: Did you try and save them? Call off the experiment?

CK: God, yes! As soon as we saw the tapeworms stir, and saw how massive the clump was, we recalled them. But that only attracted their attention. You saw the recordings. The worms are plasmic energy feeders. When they fired those engines it was like setting baby deer in the middle of a starving pride of lions. The same thing happened to us. When we pulled out of the star's atmosphere, those damned things poured out like a radiation blast. Some of these worm's bodies were thousands of klicks in length. It looked like the sun was reaching out with flat, radiant fingers. Like huge solar flares of death had erupted-- only after us! You cannot imagine the fear that swept Tux'gersharesh. We knew we were going to die, just like that entire Federal fleet did off Lewen.

Interviewer: Ogrusht, a pilot aboard the Tux'gersharesh reports that he "Believes the mission was unprepared for what happened. That the ship had no chance for survival." Do you believe this is an accurate statement?

CK: Yes and no. Obviously, no one knew how massive this clump was. There is no way to survive such an attack, except by what I-- what we ordered. Could we ever have been prepared for that? I don't think so. The more ships and power we would have had gathered there, the worse it would have been. That Koror ship is fucking durable. A lot more so than most I've ever been on. I believe that is the only reason any of us survived.

Interviewer: You would do it again, in the same circumstances?

CK: What? Turn off the entire ship? Deep freeze us all? You bet.

Interviewer: 146 people died. 104 were Humans.

CK: And almost twice that number survived. I'll defend that forever.

Interviewer: But you pulled beyond the range of the solar probes and left them to die without a chance. One, Probe 14 piloted by Hsu Montgomery, amazingly made it all the way back to the ship, shot an anchor into the hull, and repeatedly requested entrance. Of course, by this time the Tux'gersharesh was powered down and never answered. It took him four days to freeze and starve to death within the probe. His notes made in his final hours were what launched this investigation, of which you are well aware.

CK: We were all unconscious at the time. I cannot save someone sealed within a tomb myself. None of us believed we would survive. We expected to die. It was only an accident-- hell, maybe a miracle-- that the search ships stumbled upon us. Ask Sharon or Bill or Irvin-- or even Irrodi. They were all there, and they know what we went through. The tapeworms wrapped around the ship, devouring the shields. They clogged the engines. The smaller ones actually began infesting the ship, tracing the power grids. We lost mobility, weapons and equipment, all sensors, artificial gravity, communications! Then all our power started to go: we were losing lights and air! What the hell should we have done? What would you? If we didn't shut off the entire ship and lock ourselves inside the Sleepers, we wouldn't even be having this damned investigation! We'd have another chapter in the history books like Lewen!

Interviewer: Please, calm down and take your seat. Perhaps we should adjourn for the afternoon. Thank you, Dr. Kosinski. That will be all.


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Chronicles of the CultEx: Stellar Tapeworms, 6 August 1998