Friday, February 17, 2012

Flashback: In Remembrance

by Walt Staples

Dr. Nordheimer Pomphee slammed his fist on his desk, producing an almost musical note. “I will not have it. Not in my team.”

The little man on the other side of the desk raised one bushy eyebrow. “Oh? And you plan to do what exactly?”

The head of the Avenir's astrophysics team purpled as he gripped the arms of his executive swivel chair. Through gritted teeth, he answered, “The name stays 'Sheba.' I am the team lead...ergo, I am the team.”

The other preened the huge mustache that hid most of his lower face, a green glimmer playing in the shadows beneath his luxuriant eyebrows. His reply was quiet, “Then you are a team very close to fragmenting and flying off in unfortunate directions. Look, it was bad enough that you personally jumped the gun and announced that 94 Ceti A's second planet has a satellite before we're close enough to nail down why that planet has a fast wiggle of its axis. What's the rush? I mean, how long has Avenir been outward bound from Earth? A week or two more's going to make a difference? Then you had to go and name that satellite, 'Sheba,' without input from the rest of the team. Why 'Sheba?' Where did that come from? What has it to do with 'Eclectia?'”

“Rank hath its privileges.” The tall man brought his hands together on the desk in front of him and looked down a beaky nose at the astrochemist before him. “Now, get out.”

Tony Brazzi was waiting in the companionway outside. “Well, that went well,” he said brightly. “A rather rank situation I should think.”

The little man squinted one eye at the astronomer, then smiled ruefully as he tapped the bulkhead. “Does seem the shipwrights skimped a bit on sound-proofing.”

“So, what do we do, Dr. Niemand?”

Clasping his hands behind his back, Dr. Niemand set off toward the lift. “So, you go back and try to find out why both Eclectia and Sheba have the shimmies. And I go and try to find out where 'Sheba' comes from.”

Tony hooked a thumb back toward the door. “What about him?”

The astrochemist cocked his head. “I've always been of the opinion that once someone flatly rejects reason, the only course open is to find a comfortable place to sit and watch them make a fool of themselves. After all, one should not stand in the way of high art.”


During the dog watch, the little astrochemist stopped before the door of an auxiliary to the main data office. After bypassing the door sensors and those of the office, he settled himself at the subsupervisor's console. He punched in “Personal: Nordheimer Quintilius Pomphee” and a long string of alpha-numerics. He leaned back watching the blur of information flow across the screen. At the point of Pomphee's sixth birthday, he slowed the flow and turned up the volume. He replayed the sequence three times, watching the young Pomphee joyfully accept his wiggling birthday gift. Dr. Niemand sat lost in thought for some time, then coming to a decision, made a modification to the record so that it could only be opened with Pomphee's biosignature.


Tony rubbed tired, aching eyes, then looked at the numbers on the screen once more. There was something there, but he just couldn't put his hand on it. He turned to where Dr. Niemand lounged, feet up, reading a hardcopy from Tony's collection. The astronomer sighed, linked his hands behind his head, and tensed his muscles. He relaxed and asked, “Which one are you reading?”

The astrochemist smiled and answered without looking up, “King Solomon's Mines.”

Tony grinned. “Printed that out yesterday. Stayed up most of the night reading it. Alan's quite something.”

The little man turned a page fondly, “We're old friends, the hunter and I.” He looked up. “Problem?”

Tony gestured toward the numbers. “There's something hiding in there, but every time I get close, it skitters away.”

Dr. Niemand gazed at the screen thoughtfully as he ran a finger over his mustache. “Ne, as someone said once, 'when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'”

Tony turned back to the screen with a frown. After a moment or two, his eyebrows went up. He stared at the screen unseeing for a moment longer, then said quietly, “Oh, my.”


“They are Sheba I and Sheba II,” Pomphee blazed. He and the astrophysics team had been deadlocked for the past four days. One by one, those who normally backed his decisions had fallen by the wayside; either convinced by argument or through exhaustion. He looked from grim face to grim face like a boar brought to bay. His glare settled on one who entertained a half-smile. “You find this funny, Niemand?”

“Sorry, gas.” The astrochemist replied blandly. He nodded slightly to Elizabeth Rona, the tall, shapely planetologist.

Taking her cue, she spoke, “I can make it worth your while, Nord.”

He stared at her, thunderstruck. Coming to himself, he stormed, “First argument, then threats, now you offer yourself?”

Her laugh was musical. “No Nord, I have much too much respect for both of us. No, what I offer is something unique on the Avenir. If you will yield and accept Tony's name for the second moon, I will supply you with one chocolate covered fresh strawberry per day until we reach orbit around Eclectia. Think how long it's been since you tasted one, Nord. Each from my personal plant in hydroponics.”
The team leader's face lost its anger as he looked back over the decades to a very special birthday. He licked his lips and swallowed. He nodded curtly. “All right. The second moon is Quat—what was it again?”

“Quatermain,” Tony supplied.

“Fool name.” Pomphee lowered his head as if in remembrance of something and walked out.

“Not perhaps as good as the name of a beloved pet from when one was a boy, but a good name on the whole,” Dr. Niemand observed to himself just loud enough for Tony to overhear.

The astronomer asked from the side of his mouth, “How did you know he would go for it?”

“Ah, t'would be telling.” He tilted his head and grinned.

Tony shook his head. “You are a scary man, sometimes.”

“Sometimes,” the little man agreed.

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