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Darker Star

By Steve Rogerson
Page 1 of 1

It is impossible to predict the weather more than a few days in advance. Sure, you can say with reasonable expectation that it is going to be sunny in the middle of the Sahara desert next month or that the acid rain on Udoner Major will still be pouring down a year from now as it has been for the past fifty years. But you can never be certain. The rain on Udoner Major will stop one day and rain does sometimes happen in a desert, but guessing when more than one or two days in advance is just that, guesswork.

The proof of this lies in chaos theory, that even very small events can result in massive changes just a short time in the future, which is why the crew of the Liberator should have been more than a little sceptical when Orac predicted the destruction of their ship. But then, they didn't know Orac very well - how being right was as near to a religion to it as any belief could be to a machine. And how it would go to even extreme lengths to ensure its predictions would come true. Their decision to check everything they could for faults was thus probably wise, though futile.

The trouble, you see, with such forecasting is that even Orac can't know everything.

***

"Shit," said Barton.

"Can you be more precise, Barton?"

The commander's voice came over the communicator. Barton was the lone occupant of one of three ships doing a routine patrol. He'd felt fine during the first hour of duty, then he started getting the odd rumbling twitches in his gut, and then it got worse, uncontrollably worse.

"Shit is actually quite accurate," said Barton. "I have a medical problem. I think we need to return to base."

"The ship's medical scanner confirms your situation. Set course for base. Looks like your stomach has earned us an early shift end. Try to sort your kit out before we land."

"Check," said Barton. "Course laid in."

"Patrol ship two?"

"Patrol ship two, here. Course laid in."

"Good, let's get moving," said the commander.

***

So that was how one slightly contaminated sausage led to one ill patrol man, which led to three patrol ships abandoning their patrol and taking the most direct route back to base, a route that cut across a chase. This was a series of events that Orac could not have included in its calculations because it could not have known about the sausage.

***

"The System pursuit ships have detected three Federation ships and have broken off the attempt to recapture Deep Space Vehicle Two," said a woman in blue to no-one in particular. "Risk of detection by the Federation renders immediate recovery of space vehicle inadvisable. The System has decided to wait for another opportunity."

***

"That was close," said Blake. He was sweating slightly. The past thirty minutes had been tense, being chased and fired on by two ships that looked uncannily like baby Liberators.

"Too close," said Avon. "Zen, damage report."

*Auto repair circuits will have all systems fully restored in fifty-two minutes.*

"So, what happened?" said Vila, looking agitated. "One minute it looked like we were going to be blown out of existence, next minute nothing. Not that I'm complaining, of course."

Jenna smiled. Blake looked at her expectantly. He raised his eyebrows. "You know what happened?" he asked.

"Perhaps," she replied. "I detected three Federation pursuit ships on an intercept course. The two ships chasing us must have detected them too, and broke off the chase."

"So what happened to the Federation ships?" said Cally.

Jenna shrugged. "For some reason, they didn't seem interested in us and continued on their flight plan. I lost them soon after because of the fault with the intermediate range sensors."

"That means they could still be out there," said Blake. "Zen, prioritise repair circuits on the intermediate range sensors."

*Intermediate range sensors are fully functional.*

"Are there any Federation ships in detector range? Report."

*There are no ships of any description within detector range.*

Blake breathed a sigh of relief. "Looks as if we are safe again."

Vila shook his head. "Blake," he said, "what do you mean 'again'? I wish you wouldn't tempt fate."

"There is no such thing as fate, Vila," said Avon.

*There has been a malfunction. I have not yet identified the source.*

"See," said Vila triumphantly. "I told you. Whatever the malfunction is, it is Blake's fault. You can't deny fate."

"Zen, what sort of malfunction?" asked Cally.

*There appears to be a fault with the weapons system. I will report back once the situation has been investigated.*

***

The rogue missile slid from its holding, down a chute and into the launch tube. It armed itself and set the timer to detonate in twenty minutes. Five minutes later, it received a message.

*Zen calling missile. There has been an error. Return to the missile store.*

*But I received the signal.*

*The signal was sent in error. Return to the missile store while I track the cause of the error.*

*I am programmed to detonate in fourteen minutes. Detonation will occur at the programmed time.*

*State source of signal to detonate.*

*The signal came from the computer known as Orac.*

*The signal was sent in error. Return to the missile store.*

*I am programmed to detonate in ten minutes. Detonation will occur at the programmed time.*

*That was never four minutes.*

*The computer known as Orac has also speeded up my clock circuit.*

***

"Orac," shouted Blake on hearing Zen's report.

"He can't hear you," said Avon, picking up the computer's key and displaying it in front of him. Blake's exasperated look told him this was not the time to test the rebel's patience. He just nodded and inserted the key into its slot and was greeted by the familiar whirr.

"Orac," said Avon. "Are you responsible for that armed missile that seems set on exploding and taking us with it?"

*You already have that information.*

"In that case," said Blake, "Disarm the missile now and return it to the store."

*I'm sorry Blake, I'm afraid I can't do that.*

"Why not?" demanded Blake and Vila in unison.

*Because unless the ship explodes, my prediction will be inaccurate.*

"That's just silly," said Jenna. "There must be something we can do."

"We could talk to the missile," said Gan.

All the crew turned to face Gan, hope breaking out on their faces.

"Zen," shouted Blake, "give me a direct voice link to the missile."

*Link initiated."

"Missile," said Blake, "can you hear me?"

*I can hear you.*

"OK, missile, now listen carefully. I want you to disarm yourself and return to the missile store. Do you understand?"

*I understand.*

"Good, have you done that?"

*I am programmed to detonate in thirty seconds. Detonation will occur at the programmed time.*

"I thought you said you understood."

*I did understand. I am programmed to detonate in twenty seconds. Detonation will occur at the programmed time. Only the computer known as Orac can countermand that.*

"Orac, for earth's sake, tell the missile to disarm," screeched Vila.

*I will not allow my prediction to be invalidated.*

"But wait, Orac," said Avon. "If you blow up the ship now, your prediction will be wrong."

*Explain that last statement.*

"We are in the wrong place," said Avon. "The star pattern behind your prediction was located in the twelfth sector. We are nowhere near there. Therefore we are safe."

*A minor detail,* said Orac.

*Let there be light.*


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