The blinding light from the supernova triggered the automatic shutters, sealing the Ship from the universe outside. In the violet after-image, Commander K’laag sensed, rather than saw, the green disc that had been R’gur, his home planet. R’gur, once ‘Tranquil Water’, was now supersonic steam, adding its atoms to their dead star’s reseeding of space.
“Commander, Ship’s secure.” First Officer K’guur stood stiffly to attention, his six broad legs spaced in strictly regulation rows. “Your orders?”
“Lighten up, K’guur”, K’laag snapped, then recognised the irony of his comment. The Ship was still at zero gravity, so they could hardly be lighter. “We’ve prepared for this moment for decades. Our course is locked in.” He indicated the cross-hairs on the navigation board. “In seven generations, the Ship will arrive at our designated star. Then we… they… will know if our learned astronomers were correct about the existence of planets.”
“Then may a sister Ship have greater fortune at their star.”
“And what are our chances of finding a compatible water-bound planet?”
“A weighty question, Number One… speaking of which, you asked for orders. So… energise the gravity field. A leader should have all six feet firmly on the deck when starting an epic voyage.”
Commander K’laag felt the reassuring pressure of the deck return to his foot pads. He
watched the bridge crew settle back into their posts. Conscious of his scrutiny, they ensured their articulated backs were locked straight and regulation parallel to the deck.
So, we begin. “Engage main drive”, he ordered. “And may the unknown waters and aborigines of the new world welcome our descendants.”
“Admit it, dad”, the teenager faced his father over the computer monitor. “There’s no money in the environmental investigations business. It’s a turkey.”
Stewart McFarlane raised himself to full sitting height. “McFarlane Environmental Safety and Security Investigations Enterprises, young man, is not in the poultry business. And if it was”, he added, “it would only lay golden eggs.”
His son's retort was cut off by the phone beside the computer.
“Hello? Jackie. This is my day off, you know. Can't it wait? I'm teaching Angus the finer points of chook farming.”
“Apparently not, boss. There's been an explosion at Yarrunga Hydro station. The station manager, Peter Grainger, specifically asked for you.”
“Hydro stations don't explode.”
“Tell that to the hole in their roof. He's on hold waiting for a reply.”
The inexorable wheels of logic rolled in Stewart's brain. “I'm not sure what he expects...”
“It's not the explosion he wants you about, boss. It's the...other thing.” Jackie whispered.
“What...other thing?” Stewart whispered back.
“He wouldn't say over the phone.”
“Put him on...Hello? Stewart McFarlane, your problem is our environment. How can...”
The station manager cut off Stewart's spiel and spoke in an earnest but shaky voice for a full uninterrupted minute. “You come well recommended”, he concluded. “Can you help?”
“Fascinating”, Stewart said. “Yes, I'll be there. Three hours.” He hung up without saying goodbye, an uncharacteristic lapse.
“What happened, Dad?”
“The impossible.” He smiled at his son, tucked his hands into his armpits and flapped his wings. “Blaark bluck bluck bluck...blaaaark.”
By the time he turned his Mercedes off the Kangaroo Valley Road towards Lake Yarrunga, Stewart had already calculated the limited range of possibilities facing him. His analytical abilities were surpassed only by his self-confidence. Using his extensive knowledge of physics and engineering, he had discarded all but one explanation as he entered the gates of Yarrunga Power Station.
Peter Grainger was waiting for him at the main entrance. “Mister McFarlane, is it?” The station manager offered his hand, while looking up at Stewart's two-metre frame.
“It is.” Stewart shook hands, then fixed his gaze on Grainger's nose tip. “Show me. This I've got to see.”
Grainger crossed his eyes to check his nose, then realised Stewart had passed him, moving in gigantic strides towards the building.
The four hydro generators stood in a line down the long turbine house hall. At least, three did. The second in line was missing, as was a section of the high vaulted roof, directly overhead. The floor was carpeted with water.
Stewart stopped unexpectedly, causing Grainger to double back through a puddle.
“Da da da dummmmm”, Stewart hummed.
“Pardon?” The station manager's face revealed the doubts he was having on his selection of consultants.
“Very neat. Landed in the pondage I assume?” Stewart walked to the gaping hole in the floor and looked down. He winced. “Hope you've got a spare.”
In the control room, Stewart met the operator who was in charge at the time of the incident. He was off duty but had bravely awaited Stewart’s arrival.
“Tell me about it... please”, Stewart prompted.
Between nervous twitches, the operator retold the story. The Number Two turbine had been on full load, humming quietly, when there was the grandmother of all water hammers in the main pipe, as if all the taps in the world had been suddenly turned off at once. Teeth rattling, his head had snapped up in time to see the generator and its drive shaft disappearing through the roof.
Then, to Stewart’s embarrassment, the operator began to cry. A soft exhaled sigh, a trembling bottom lip, a drowning fish impersonation. Finally, a series of gut-wrenching sobs deafened the onlookers until, exhausted, he slumped into his chair. With what appeared to be his last gram of strength, he feebly pointed to the control panel on the wall.
“Ah…thank you.” Stewart took three brisk strides to the Number One turbine control panel, knowing exactly what to look for. Two meters sat side by side, but worlds apart in the stories they told.
“Peter…please correct me, but the main water inlet valve is one fifth open, which would give an electrical output of...”
“Twenty percent maximum rating”, the Station Manager responded, his voice strangely dull. Defeated. Maybe it was time to retire and get his stamp collection in order.
“Yes, I thought so. Fascinating.” Stewart hummed some Beethoven while he stared at the power output meter which sat, rock solid, at one hundred percent maximum rating. “Of course, you know what this means?”
“No, I don’t.” Peter, trying to comfort his operator, finally snapped. “That’s why we’re paying your obscene fee. What the hell does it mean?”
“It means I need a cappuccino. This is no time for cafe bar brew.”
Stewart watched the sugar sink into the chocolate sprinkled froth. His table provided a view of the rustic shops across the street. “Yee Olde Coffee Shoppe”, in the quiet village of Kangaroo Valley, was a short drive from the enigma at Yarrunga power station. It had an ambience of peace, tranquillity and ... coffee. The perfect pick-me-up for the shock Stewart had received.
Of course, with his giant intellect, Stewart already knew how the generator was producing five times as much power as the water going into the turbine should provide. The maths was inevitable. The only thing he didn't know was...why? Or, more to the point...who?
He finished his cappuccino and ordered another, with apricot Danish. While waiting for their arrival, he closed his eyes to contemplate the mystery. He felt the warm sun bathing his face, the rich aroma of coffee beans tickling his dilated nostrils, something soft and furry rubbing against his leg...
“Lucifer”, a reproachful female voice hissed.
Stewart snapped out of his reverie to see a huge black cat with evil golden eyes staring up at him. Two tables away sat a witch.
“Yours?” Stewart asked the witch, with admirable aplomb.
“Please excuse Lucifer. It must be your aura. Strange.”
“It's a day for strange things. And it's quite alright. Me and my aura needed a good rub.” Stewart winked at the cat.
“I'm not really a witch.”
“Eh?” Stewart's aplomb landed like a bomb. “Did I say you were?”
“Didn't have to. I read minds.” The non-witch smiled, her emerald eyes sparkling in amusement. “Vine, Jasmine Vine. Seer, fortune teller, reader of palms... and occasional minds.”
Stewart smiled at Jasmine, taking in her gaudy scarf, bright silk kaftan, jewel-encrusted rings on every finger.
“One has to dress to meet one’s client’s expectations.” Jasmine explained.
“One must, I agree entirely.” Stewart thanked the waitress for his coffee and Danish. “However, my client's expectations are for more than flamboyant appearances.”
“Yes”, Jasmine sighed in a dramatic 'seeing' sort of way. “A matter of gravity.”
Stewart choked on his cappuccino. “Ordinarily, Miss Vine...”
“... I would discount you as a clever charlatan...”
“...but seeing what I saw this afternoon, your supernatural tricks...”
“...which I will accept for the moment as genuine...”
“...still pale into insignificance.”
“Pale, maybe”, Jasmine preened her flaming red hair. “Insignificant, never.”
“Then how would you explain water, falling from a height of one hundred metres, having a pressure of a five hundred metre drop?” Stewart pointed the Danish dramatically at Jasmine, like a teacher with a blackboard duster.
“Heavy”, Jasmine said in a husky voice.
“Yes, heavy. But ...why?” Stewart slurped the chocolate foam noisily.
“Don't you mean 'who'?” Jasmine fixed him with her green eyes.
“Can you see anything not already in my mind?”
“Do you have an object from...”
Stewart took a small lump of metal from his pocket and handed it to Jasmine. “This is the remains of a sheared-off holding bolt for the late lamented and erstwhile airborne number two turbine. May it rest in pieces.”
“I see...I see...” Jasmine rolled her eyes upwards and moaned softly. “Fear...a giant world... a desperate flight...”
Lucifer hissed approval.
“...a void...water...weightless... weight...much weight…safe.” Jasmine opened her eyes. “That's all.”
“That's enough. Would you consider a job as a consultant?”
Peter Grainger’s eyes all but popped out. “Aliens? In the pipe?”
“Not just aliens”, Stewart corrected him. “High gravity generating aliens. Refugees from their lost dense world.”
“Of course. How could I have forgotten that?” Peter backed away, wondering if he should call for security. This consultant was a nut.
“You’re not convinced.” Stewart reached into his breast pocket.
The Station Manager gave a cry and ducked under his office desk. “Don’t shoot”, he pleaded in a muffled voice.
Stewart McFarlane strode across to the desk and sat heavily on one corner, causing the imitation mahogany to groan dangerously. “Mister Grainger, what do you take me for? Some kind of nut? Am I going to shoot you with my Parker pen? I assure you that McFarlane etcetera Enterprises doesn’t indulge in such theatrics. Besides, it’s bad form to terminate a client before payment.” He knocked on the desk. “Now, will you please come out and listen to my explanation.”
Peter Grainger crawled out and sat heavily on the chair. “I thought...”
“Yes, yes, I understand.” Stewart unscrewed his pen top and pulled an invoice from Peter’s inwards tray, turning to its blank back page. “A not uncommon reaction from some of my clients. I must find out why some day. However...back to the aliens.”
“We must. Look here.” Stewart drew a simple sketch of the power station reservoir, its two feeder pipes and the four turbines at the bottom. “Not Picasso, but it will suffice.” Then, in his best teacher voice, waving his Parker like a ruler, Stewart spelt out the situation.
“Units three and four share the second pipe. And everything is perfectly normal. Correct?”
“Uh, correct.” Peter waited, curious now. His engineering instincts had taken charge over his initial fear. And he figured Stewart couldn’t be dangerous while he was talking. He hoped.
“Units one and two share the first pipe. Unit one wasn’t running when Unit two went up-up-and-away. Correct?” Stewart didn’t wait for a reply. He was running hot, like Unit one. “Now, Unit one is running at an output five times its input. Correct?” This time he waited.
“Uh, correct”, Peter said on cue.
“So, where is all this power coming from?” Stewart asked rhetorically, and was visibly annoyed to receive an answer.
“UFOs”, Peter suggested.
“Wherever did you get that crazy idea?” Stewart snapped.
“Never mind what I said. Pay attention to the lesson.” Stewart rapped Peter’s knuckles with his pen. “UFOs. Spare me.”
Stewart spent the next ten minutes eliminating impossible causes of the excess power.
“And you know what Sherlock Holmes said, eh Watson?” Stewart drew a heavy circle around the letter ‘G’ he’d drawn.
“No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me”, Peter said, staring at the vandalised invoice and the circled letter.
“‘Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the answer,’” Stewart recited reverently. “Or words to that affect. So, there’s your cause.” Stewart gave a satisfied smile
Stewart handed Peter three folded pages of calculations. “Study them later. The bottom line is that somewhere in your number one pipe, there is a source of gravity fifteen times that of Earth’s.” He sat back, smugly pleased with his conclusion.
Peter gasped. “Fifteen times?”
“And when it was first switched on, it caused that almighty water hammer that sent your operating number two turbine through the roof... literally.”
Peter had a déjà vu moment that this might be a good time for a cappuccino. “But where does all this gravity... if it exists... come from?”
“It does exist, and I thought I told you. Aliens!” Stewart shook his head in frustration. “I wish you’d listen, Peter.”
“But I said...”
“You said UFOs. There’s a difference.” Stewart pocketed his pen.
Peter lurched to his feet, the stress of the day’s extraordinary events taking its toll. “You are nuts. This is bumph straight out the X-Files.” He thumped his desk, then clutched his hand in pain.
Stewart drew himself to his full two-metre height. “Sir, I’ll remind you that X-Files is fictitious bumph.” He pointed at the papers Peter was holding. “That bumph... is real.”
The two giant steel encased pipes loomed on either side of the concrete stairway. Peter and Stewart had almost reached halfway.
Stewart pivoted carefully on the steep stairs and looked down onto the roof of the power station. “I don't remember my contract including mountain climbing”, he sighed. Then he looked up past Peter’s feet toward the skyline. “We should be close. Be careful.”
“For one thing, of your head being pushed between your collarbones.”
“I rarely joke when I am afraid of falling to my death. And a fifteen gravity push would make a very spectacular and messy fall.
“If it's that dangerous, what are we doing up here?” Peter tried to cling to the concrete steps.
“Do the words 'I won't believe this fifteen gees crap until I see it with my own eyes' strike a chord?” Stewart started to squeeze past Peter on the narrow steps. “I'll lead from here. I wouldn't want to lose a client. Not...”
“...before payment”, Peter chuckled.
Stewart slowly crept up the next three steps, then stopped.
“How do you see wind?” Stewart whispered as he stared up at the number one pipe on his right.
Here we go again, Peter thought. “You can’t, but you can see its effects. A tree's leaves moving, the dust...”
“How do you see gravity, Peter?” Stewart interrupted while reaching into his coat pocket.
“You can't”, Peter said flatly.
“Wanna bet?” Stewart pulled out a rich, ripe tomato and like an army commando, lobbed it hard up the stairway beside the pipe. Then he ducked and hugged the concrete like there was no tomorrow. “Incoming”, he yelled.
“What on earth?” Peter stared at the tomato. The red projectile had slowed then stopped in mid-arc, seemingly entrapped in an invisible web. Then the tomato leapt downwards as if shot from a cannon. It struck him square on the nose, spreading tomato paste from forehead to chin.
Stewart calmly reached into a pocket and produced a small mirror, which he handed to Peter.
“Behold, with your own eyes. Fifteen gravities.”
“Talk to them? How?” Peter Grainger's nose still smarted, but not as much as his pride.
Stewart sipped his Cafe Bar brew. How he longed for Yee Olde Coffee Shoppe and a good leg rub. “Ah, that would come under 'trade secret', I imagine. At least”, he smiled at the mental image of Peter's red dripping face, “until I've signed a new contract.”
“What would you talk about?”
Stewart McFarlane leaned back in the station manager's leather armchair and smiled enigmatically. “I'm sure I'll think of something. Blaaak bluck bluck bluck...blaaaark!”
(Copyright Robert Bee 2008)