Zero Node: Chapter 22: Chapter 22 "Puzzling Answers"
by Jeff Rand
It can be a challenge to write a chapter without using a popular word. For this chapter title to make sense, a very common three letter word, starting with ‘t’, ending with ‘e’, and having an ‘h’ in between was never used. Of course, one noted Methodist took offense when reference was made to “our” pope, as if this person had jurisdiction over protestants.
Mr. Horn had a chance to offer one his favorite Winter Camp quotes – “spawned of Satan.” Of course, there was much contrast in the character of Ron Donohue, when it was suggested that he was actually a papal spy. Now you know another well-kept secret.
March 2, 2020
Need a refresher? Here's the Another Ten Seconds chapter
Jeff extended his right arm to grab the railing while keeping steady in the small raft. Ron paddled in circles from the other side of the raft to hold it in place. His lanky frame enabled him to maintain broad strokes without having to lean over the edge of the raft. While Jeff held the raft to the railing, Wilbur disembarked and stepped through an opening in the railing onto the deck. As he knelt on the deck, he began to turn a wheel to open a hatch. After a few turns, he swung the hatch to expose the entrance to the submarine. He motioned to Steve, "Have you ever been in a sub?"
"Not really. At least not one that was underwater," Steve responded.
"Then will you join me?"
Steve rose and pulled himself onto the small deck. "I suppose you want me to crawl down the ladder. And, if I refuse?"
Wilbur responded, "It will be tough to swim back to Howland Island."
Steve grabbed hold of the railing as he lowered himself to the first step of the ladder. Years earlier he would have found the combination of the narrow opening and steep ladder impossible to navigate. But the challenges he endured since escaping from Yakutsk had a remarkable effect on his fitness and his general outlook on life.
The ladder ended in a small chamber with several digital gauges sealed in the wall. Steve could not make sense of their meaning, as they were not delineating in the common units of the metric system to which he and his Canadian cousins were familiar. Although he was surprised to see they were using the English language, he was sure they were not using the British measurements common to the United States.
The first set was labeled "Chronograph." It was divided into five sections reading: 0 hf ~ 00453 bm ~ 22 hJ ~ 94 J ~ 162 mJ. He noted the ‘mJ’ gauge was counting. He thought it might be seconds but could not be sure.
He looked at another set of gauges labeled "Cartesian Coordinates." This set had three rows of gauges reading: X ~ 0 MT ~ 031 kT ~ 388 T ~ 053 mT; Y ~ 0 MT ~ 129 kT ~ 475 T ~ 696 mT; Z ~ 0 MT ~ 001 kT ~ 275 T ~ 586 mT. Steve had recalled using Cartesian coordinates in solving some mathematical problems, but the readings did not appear to make sense.
On yet a third set, he read the label "Atmospheric Pressure." Here there were just two gauges reading: 036 yp ~ 109 zp. Again, it did not make sense, but he reasoned that the air pressure felt right.
The last set of gauges made more sense, being labeled "Atmospheric Chemistry." There were six gauges showing what appeared to be percentages, at least according to Steve’s recollection: N2 > 78.0162 ~ O2 > 20.0842 ~ H2 > 1.01373 ~ AR > 0.793 ~ CO2 > 0.0416 ~ CH4 > 0.0001104.
Besides the display gauges, the chamber had two hatches. While the one to the left was closed, the hatch to Steve’s right was open. He stepped through to a larger space where his friends sat on benches adjoining a small table. "Glad to see you made it," he said. "Do you know where we are going?"
"It would be the deepest folly were I to attempt to explain it," Ethan responded. "I assume we are going to see the Infinite Wisdom."
"In a submarine?"
"Maybe the Infinite Wisdom is a she. You know, Ariel, The Little Mermaid," interjected Michaela, recalling one of her favorite animated movies from a childhood, which now seamed so distant.
No one had a clear answer as to the nature of their uncertain future. Yet they knew that Wilbur and his colleagues could have easily let them starve in the lighthouse if they so desired. Something had changed in the behavior of their former jailers, and they best not push their luck.
Ron entered the room through the hatch and told Steve to squeeze onto the bench next to Michaela and Leu.
"Don't you have another seat?" asked Steve.
"Look, this sub is designed for no more than six occupants," snarled Ron. "We weren't planning to pick-up any passengers. Now we have ten altogether."
Steve sat down with the others choosing not to provoke this stranger. Shortly thereafter, Jeff and Wilbur came through the hatch. Wilbur swung the hatch door closed and turned its wheel to seal it shut. "Ron, you can tell the others we are ready to leave," he said. Ron walked by the small table and crawled through another hatch opposite the one where he entered the chamber.
"Wilbur, where are we going? Are we still your prisoners?" asked Steve.
"As I said, our instructions are to take you to the Infinite Wisdom. You are not prisoners, but certain protocols must be observed on this vessel. It is as much for your safety as ours."
"Can we have a look around?" asked Keith.
"When Ron returns, he will give you a tour," Wilbur responded.
"Why can't we go with Jeff?" asked Steve.
"Because I will be sure you don't cause any trouble," came a quick reply from Ron, as he returned through the hatch.
The tour went surprisingly quick. The submarine was not some large-scale nuclear model, as the travelers might have imagined. However, its source of power was never made clear and it could be nuclear fuel. On the other side of the hatch, through which Ron had crawled, was the control room with an array of monitors and dials. It could seat no more than four persons. With their tall frames, Ron and Jeff had to frequently duck their heads to move about the sub.
Next to the entrance hatch to the surface chamber, was another hatch. This led to a sleeping chamber holding two double bunks. A small sink and open commode were fixed in the corner, with no attempt to create privacy. There was another hatch on the side of this chamber. Presumably this accessed the same chamber as the second hatch in the entryway, but Ron would not allow it to be opened.
Returning to the larger chamber with the table, it was plain that this served as the galley and social center, though very compact. Steve was pleased to see gauges similar to those he observed when he entered the sub. Michaela noticed the flat screen on the wall and asked if it played videos. When Ron answered in the affirmative, she asked if he could play reruns of Hogan's Heroes. She had not watched television in years. When Ron learned that the show was an old sitcom, he indicated that they did not have such trash in their library. Instead he offered to show a documentary on the mating habits of humpback whales. Ron left the group alone at the table.
"I haven't seen television or even a computer monitor in over four years. Not sure I miss it," remarked Leu.
"It is just as well," said his father. "We need to learn as much as we can about these strangers and the one in charge, whom they call 'The Infinite Wisdom.'"
"Do you really think we'll get to meet her?" asked Michaela. "What then? Will she let us live?"
Steve responded, "We don't know what she or he will do. Perhaps The Infinite Wisdom is not a he or she, but some artificial intelligence. Michaela, you have managed to survive all these years while the other eight billion humans were literally prisoners in the NVR centers. That should be reason enough for The Infinite Wisdom to be interested in keeping you alive. As to me, I may be of less value. I think that Ron character would be happy to slit my throat with a knife."
"Enough," said Ethan. "We need to pursue more productive enterprises. Michaela, why don't you see if there is any food in this galley. Leu, you can figure out what makes this thing work. I am going to try to make sense of these gauges next to the video monitor."
"I saw similar gauges in the entry chamber but could not make sense of most of the measurements," said Steve.
Keith commented, "At least they appear to be using base ten. Although some of them were hard to understand, I believe the one labeled 'Atmosphere' is giving us the chemical composition of the air. I did not see the one for temperature earlier, and it has two parts, reading 213 and 9. Perhaps Mark Bollman could make sense of it, if he is still alive."
Once again Ethan tried to turn the conversation in a positive direction, "Let's not dwell on the worst. I would like to think that because Winter Camp has survived, so will those who made it possible for so many years. Afterall, did it not make it through the challenges of the past, such as the threats to the core of Scouting in the early twenties."
Steve and the others heard a low hum and became aware of the movement. Though the younger ones rose to pursue their assignments, the others kept their eyes on the gauges. It did not surprise them the values on the Cartesian Coordinates were getting lower. They supposed that these values represented their destination or perhaps the home port for the sub. At first, they assumed that the Z value might have something to do with the ocean depth, but as it decreased, they came to believe the sub might be making a trip to an underwater destination.
Michaela began her search for food. However, her hopes of finding fresh fruit and produce were not to be rewarded. There were some dried leaves, which she presumed would be used to brew tea. She hoped to find fish but had to settle for dried octopus. However, there were bins filled with the food tubes. She could not find a stove to cook anything. Yet there were a few nondescript mugs and spoons. They had better provisions on the Clearwater, at least at times.
Leu, through his investigations, answered the question of no cooking apparatus. He found a valve with a dial above. The dial had demarcations from 190 to 270. He turned the valve with the dial set at 200. Cold liquid came out a spicket spilling into a drain below. Without asking permission, he grabbed one of the mugs and poured himself a drink. He sniffed it before drinking. It was water. When he turned the dial to 190, he was surprised when ice pellets fell from the spicket. At least they could enjoy ice water with their meals. Michaela's quest to brew tea was answered when the dial was set at 270. The water was boiling and caused Leu to yell.
Wilbur stepped into the chamber, when he heard Leu scream. "You better be careful. The water has significant scorching power when the dial is set to 270. But you are welcome to have a spot of tea with your meal." Then he reached into a cabinet and removed a set of checkers and the board game Risk. "These may help you pass the time."
Steve thanked him for the offer of food and the games. Once a true boardgame aficionado, he could not remember the last time he really played a game. Nevertheless, he was puzzled by a couple of Wilbur's comments. Why did he refer to scorching power, as if there were degrees of pain? Then he talked like he was educated in the United Kingdom. Yet, he could not tell where Wilbur and the others acquired their language skills. Especially, the others, he thought. Their voices didn't even divulge their sex. Another thing that puzzled Steve was the boardgame. It was the only branded product he could see on the submarine. Even the mugs and spoons were without markings.
Michaela joined the three older men for a game of Risk. It would pass the time until they arrived at some unknown place. Periodically, Keith checked the readings on the dials. He noted that the X and Y values continued to decrease, while the Z value had stopped decreasing. In fact, it was increasing ever so slightly. He was a bit concerned to note the changes in the atmospheric readings, where O2 was decreasing and CO2 increasing.
According to Steve's watch, which remarkably he retained in functional condition, about six hours had passed. During that time, each had a chance to ingest some food and use the toilet in the not-so-private berthing chamber. No one was surprised when Steve won the game, but Keith became especially agitated.
"K2, what's wrong?" asked Ethan.
"I'm having trouble breathing. We are running out of oxygen."
"I don't think they intend to let us suffocate. Perhaps you are paying too much attention to the gauges."
Ethan left his friends and opened the door to the control chamber. "We seem to be having a problem with oxygen," he said.
"Yes, we know. That is why we are returning to the surface. This vessel was not designed to hold ten passengers for an extended period." Said Wilbur.
"Where are the others?" asked Ethan, noting that there were only three in the control chamber.
"Oh, they are in the engine room. We should be at the surface in less than an hour."
Over the next hour everyone became aware that they were running out of oxygen. Keith played close attention to the dials as the oxygen content was being replaced by carbon dioxide. He noted that the X and Y coordinates approached zero then went into negative territory before moving back towards zero. It was hard to tell. Then the Z reading went well past 2 kT. Eventually the readings stopped changing, and Wilbur passed through the galley on his way to the entrance chamber. The influx of fresh air was most welcome.
Although Keith had suffered most from being deprived of oxygen, the agile Louis Rein rushed to the ladder and climbed to the surface to join Wilbur.
"Does this look familiar?" asked Wilbur.
"All I see are stars in the night sky and open ocean."
"I believe you have been here before. This is the point where your International Dateline crosses the Equator."
"OK. But we didn't find anything. And there is still nothing here."
"True. But you really weren't equipped for the search."