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The Essay
Show #358
The S/V Cromwell
David Gunn

Bonsai Sally opened the hatch of the null-gravity chamber and bounce-stepped into the airlock. She pressed a button and, as the room sealed with a magnetic hiss, normal gravity hit her like a border collie with Aggressive Behavior Disorder. The ceiling righted itself, and she found herself sprawled on the former west wall alongside of a preternaturally befuddled shoehorn. A portal under her feet opened suddenly and she dropped into Navigation. The room's walls were crisscrossed with handholds, and Sally grabbed hold of one and pulled herself into the epicenter of the room. EpCenNav, as it was called, featured a console pod from which radiated five rows of control stalks, and, in front of that, a voluptuous task chair. Sally eased into the chair's soft cushions, and nearly disappeared from view. It felt like sinking into a synthetic felt blancmange. She checked the readouts on a dozen digital gauges, entered some minute corrections into the Mother Computer, and commenced count-down--15, 11, 7, 3, 2, 1, zero! The entire room shuddered like a Latter-Day Saint at a Roman bacchanalia. She eased off on the clutch, pulled back the throttle lever and gunned the engine. The shuddering lessened to a more comfortable vibration. She grinned. All systems were Go and she was ready for blast-off.

Bonsay Sally was a third-year student at the US Space and Rocket Center--better known as Space Camp--in Huntsville, Alabama. And the craft whose EpCenNav dials she was twiddling was the S/V Cromwell, the flagship of the camp fleet. Not that she was planning on taking it for a spin around the celestial block any time soon. S/V stood for "simulation vehicle"--each flight into space was an elaborate computer-generated deception. But so realistic were the ancillary effects that more than one interstellar cadet contracted the space bends and swore his Aunt Mary was a Martian.

But in fact--and how many times has that idiom been employed at the beginning of this show to introduce information that would otherwise seem apocryphal?--she was planning to absquatulate the camp in the Cromwell. For Sally had been taught how radionuclides from a certain brand of lemon-scented dryer sheets, when exposed to intense thermionic pulses, produced enough energy to send the ship to the moon and back posthaste. Exactly who taught her is not information for public consumption at this time. However, Seattle, not the moon, was today's destination. She had been instructed to analyze the results of an intricate controlled experiment that the same presently anonymous person had devised. On the surface, the procedure seemed simple enough. Program a 35-mm camera to automatically take a picture every ten seconds, then drop it into deep water--say, about 800 feet to the sea floor. When it touches bottom, deploy the language modification pod and have it attempt to make contact with a very reticent but very important life form there. See? Easy!

Easy is also the operative word that precedes "does it," as the manner in which Bonsai Sally was instructed to expose the dryer sheets to the thermionic pulsometer--and still the Cromwell rocketed into space like an amphetamined border collie in a caffeine sauna ... with Aggressive Behavior Disorder. Steering was hard--the craft was, after all, designed for simulation, not real life conditions--but Sally managed to lay in a more or less northwesterly trajectory, and within a mere 18 minutes she had the famous Space Needle in her line of sight. She turned the pulsometer to Low, and the Cromwell responded by shooting across the bow of a Bainbridge Island ferry and plunging into Puget Sound. At least one person noted the incident.

Wait a minute. I was in Seattle last week and, while ferrying across Puget Sound, I hurled my camera into the beckoning, blue water. But I did so of my own volition--the dumb thing jammed for the umpteenth time when I tried to load film into it, so mitigating my exasperation seemed an appropriate course of action. My behavior was in no way influenced by external forces! Was it?

The pinpoint-o-scope located the descending camera, a Canon AE1 [hey, thatís what I had!], and Bonsai Sally made a slight course correction to follow it down. At -450 feet, a trickle of water spurted into the cabin through a compromised gasket. And although the Cromwell's forward lights were sealed in waterproof shielding, they werenít made to withstand extreme underwater pressure. They blew out at -600 feet, leaving Sally in the proverbial dark, and forcing her to follow the camera on instruments alone. Unfortunately, the instruments--including a tony gold-plated saxophone--were also not designed to work in such incommodious conditions, and, one by one, they failed. The echolocationometer was the last to go, but not before it picked up a signal from a nearby language modification pod that indicated that species-to-species contact had been made. But then the front door buckled, allowing entry by a heretofore unknown class of man-eating phytoplankton with Aggressive Behavior Disorder. Disobeying orders was normally unacceptable to Bonsai Sally, but so was not finishing her term at Space Camp, so she cranked the thermionic pulsometer to Very High and sank into the blancmangic folds of the task chair as the Cromwell reversed direction and headed to the surface. It shot out of the water to the port side of the same ferryboat and rocketed back towards Huntsville. An observer mistook it for a very fast merganser. [Wasn't me. I saw only a jet gull.] Twenty minutes later, Sally crashed the craft into the Space Camp cafeterium, but fortunately the chair in which she was enwombed cushioned her from serious injury. She clambered out of the erstwhile simulation vehicle, helped herself to a slice of pizza that a very startled co-cadet had recently abandoned, and soughed a "best-laid plans of mice and men go oft astray" sigh. What a waste of a 38-year long scheme, she thought. What will Mother Bumpers do now?

Well, if you're expecting an answer from me, forget it. I only invent the characters. Once they make it onto Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar--and this 358th episode is no exception--they seem to do whatever they want. And right now, they seem to want me to turn the subsequent talking part of the program over to Kalvos.