Brain Sand in the Oort Cloud

16 Jun

Something unexpected was happening to the crews and passengers on vessels traveling through the icy shell on the edge of the solar system.

Galactic transportation had the prospect of suffering enormous losses from the medical effects of the damage occurring to the ability of human beings to rest and sleep in normal patterns.

The United Nation’s Space Council recruited a special vehicle of experts in space medicine to make a thorough investigation of the health problems occurring up to three light years from the system’s central Sun.

The executive head of the ship called the Explorer was the veteran skipper named Turan Izan, a native of Turkey.

It was Dr. Aldo Dulci of Italy who was in charge of the neurological research project. His assignment was to find out why so many brains became sleepless out there in certain regions of the Oort Cloud.

There were trillions of ice comets flying about in that distant environment, it was understood by both the captain and the brain specialist. What was the cause of so many sleep problems out there?

No one knew for certain or dared to guess.

The private office of Captain Izan was unusually small compared with those used by most vessels traveling between star systems of the Milky Way Galaxy. It reflected the modesty and sociability of the Explorer’s chief officer. He was a tall, enormous figure without self-consciousness or self-importance, completely devoted to his duties and the particular mission at hand.

Ever since leaving the take-off station in Central Europe, Dr. Aldo Dulci had been holding continual conferences with the leader in his tiny office just behind the ship’s bridge. There had never been anything of substance to report to the Captain, not until they reached and entered the region of the Oort Cloud.

Short, slight, and animated, Aldo preferred to stand rather than take the empty chair facing the small carbon desk at which Turan Izan sat looking up at him.

“I am getting the first indications of the formation of acervuli inside the pineal glands of members of our staff who are being monitored with laser projections,” declared the neurologist with relief on his long, narrow face. “This process of calcification inside the epiphysis has begun sooner than I ever expected it to do so. It is obviously connected to our new spatial location, once we progressed out of and beyond the Kuiper Belt.”

Captain Izan grew excited. “That is important news. Are you going to start probing into the affected brains? Is that the next step of investigation for you and your unit?”

“I want to wait a few Earth-days so as to collect a greater number of affected individuals on board here,” answered the medical officer. “My intervention will begin with those persons most affected in their sleeping patterns. That is what first drew medical attention to what was happening within particular regions of the Oort Cloud. Once the right conditions exist, I intend to use all the means and instruments we have available on the vessel to determine what is happening to so many brain systems undergoing changes in the pineal gland.”

Izan made a sudden grimace. “I wish you success in reaching a speedy resolution of the scientific riddles that you face, Doctor. Then, we can perhaps discover some way of bringing restful sleep to those suffering while in this outer periphery of the Solar System.”

The tests that Aldo supervised revealed the beginning of a dangerous ossification in process inside the pineal glands of a significant number of the human beings onboard “The Explorer”, a process that promised to end in disastrous catastrophe for everyone connected with the phenomenon. What was the neurologist going to do next if he wanted to treat the illness? Dr. Dulci decided to meet with the Captain once more and make a report on the worsening situation. His hope was that Turan Izan had come up with some possible remedy, but he feared that no panacea existed in anyone’s thinking on the problem.

“The situation grows worse with each Earthday we travel deeper into the sphere of comets called the Oort Cloud,” said the medico with a sigh. “No one on my staff, not even I, knows what measures to take that might have a chance of averting a general health disaster for our crew and passengers.” Aldo paused a brief moment. “I am desperate enough to try nearly anything that promises solution to our problem. Do you have specific, practical suggestions on what to do next, Captain Izan?”

The latter’s milky blue eyes turned cloudy. “I have thought and considered deeply, from every conceivable angle. But nothing worthy of further consideration ever forms or turns up in my mind.”

“That’s too bad,” moaned the neurologist, looking downward out of chagrin and embarrassment.

He rose and left the Captain’s cabin without saying goodbye or anything more.

The crisis of insomnia and troubled sleeping grew ever worse, until a large percentage of the personnel involved with navigating and powering the space vehicle became unable to function. The illness gallery was completely filled up, so that beds and compartments elsewhere on “The Explorer” had to be cleared out and equipped to take care of the unusually high numbers of the sick and suffering.

Captain Izan summoned Dr. Dulci and his medical unit to the oval conference room. He entered last of all, after Aldo and his associates were seated at a long manganese table.

Turan did not sit down like those there to hear him, but started to speak in a loud, commanding tone at once.

“I called all of you here because there is an important announcement that I want to make to you. It will have some effect upon the medical problem that all of you are dealing with and that becomes more of a problem with each Earthday that passes.

“Since none of us knows for certain what is causing the brain sand calcification that results in disruption of the pineal gland’s sleep cycle, I have decided to make a major change in how our ship is crossing through the Oort Cloud of countless comet bodies. We shall be making a radical decline in our speed, even though that means that this vessel will have to spend over twice as much time in this zone as was planned.

“In other words, there will be a major delay in the timing of our leaving the Solar System of our Sun and our entrance into the galactic inter-star vacuum.

“What will be the effect of this loss of speed upon the formation of pineal sand and the damage to sleep?

“No one can predict that, so we shall have to wait and observe whether this change will influence the minds of the human beings aboard “The Explorer”. Does anyone have any questions?”

Those who heard the Captain say this were too stunned to say anything, so that he left the conference room as quickly as he had entered.

Aldo looked up and down the table, but kept silent as his medical platoon departed one by one.

The man in charge of the plasmoid engine system of the gigantic vessel was Zhang Rong, an energy physicist from the central Yangtse area of Han China. He was short and rotund, always smiling and good-natured. His pleasant character seemed to attract friendship and popularity on the ships he served.

“It will be a difficult task to slow the Explorer so drastically,” he told Captain Izan as the pair stood on the bridge, looking out into the cosmic void of the Oort Cloud through the wide silicon window at the head of the ship.

“Will this slow-down set back our schedule for leaving the Solar System to an extent that presents any new problems or difficulties?” asked the skipper of the space vessel. He looked inquiringly into the round face of the plasmon expert.

“Nothing that my people and I cannot handle,” the physicist assured him, grinning with confidence.

But a short while after he left the bridge, Zhang Rong made his way to the dispensary unit in order to ask questions of the chief medical officer, the neurologist named Aldo Dulci.

The two of them sat down in the latter’s small records room where the results of his brain research were kept on computer monitor units.

“Are you worried about this sudden maneuver that we shall soon be making?” asked Zhang, his face serious and devoid of any smile or grin.

Aldo gave a look of surprise. “My knowledge of plasma physics does not go very far,” confessed the medico. “I am versed more in human biology and neurology, and I see no evident harm coming from the slow speed that the Captain believes can cut down the rate of calcification causing brain sand and sleeplessness among our crew and passenger population. No, there is no evidence, as yet, of any connection between ship speed through the Oort Cloud and the deteriorating health conditions of so many humans aboard.

“I have never read or heard about any such problems in the medical literature on my personal tapes,” declared the research physician.

Zhang made a deep sigh, then headed for the door, commenting “We should at least learn something from the Captain’s slowing down of our ship’s speed out of this sphere of comets.”

It was after an Earthweek of reduced velocity that Izan called Aldo and Zhang to his tiny office for consultation.

“What have the medical records revealed?” he asked the neurologist as soon as the three of them were seated.

Dr. Dulci frowned. “There has been nothing meaningful to show you, sir. The rate at which the number of cases of insomnia rises has remained exactly the same as before this experiment began. It is as if no change in speed at all occurred. There is nothing to conclude, since nothing important has changed during this short period.”

Izan turned to Zhang, waiting to see whether he had anything to add.

“The plasma engine has operated at a constant, unchanging low rate of speed. Now, the future course should be set for the rest of the journey through the Oort Cloud.”

The Captain thought a few moments, then announced what he had decided.

“It appears that the mystery of the brain sands remains and grows thicker. I believe we must continue to see what comes about when major changes are brought about. Therefore, I am ordering a speeding up of our engine, all the way to the maximum rate that is possible. Yes, I think we should try to find out whether the opposite condition of extreme velocity can show some variation or alteration that holds some significant meaning.” He turned his dark eyes on Zhang. “Will you reverse the rate of speed immediately?”

“Yes, sir,” answered the plasmoid physicist with a degree of unhidden frustration. “We will rev up the plasmons at once.”

Growing anxious about what he thought was occurring in the first few days of accelerating speed, Aldo sought out Zhang Rong, finding him busy coordinating adjustments on plasma engine monitors in a control chamber adjacent to the tubes that carried oscillating quasi-particles away from the ship, out into the empty areas of the Oort Cloud.

“What is it?” said the physicist. “Have you found some pattern being caused by this new maneuver of our Captain?”

The neurologist made a sour face. “It is what I should have expected as soon as we took this new direction. The rate at which the brain sands form has sky-rocketed incredibly. There has never before been such a volume of insomnia and sleep disorder as we are at present experiencing. Yet I still cannot figure out what the connection is. The riddle is one that tortures me. Why should this crescendo of speed result in burgeoning sleeplessness on this ship? I don’t believe that anything similar to this has ever been reported since humans have first ventured into space.”

“Have you reported this to Captain Izan yet?”

“I am on my way to the bridge right now,” replied the doctor. “Would you like to accompany me there? I am sure that you will be able to clear up some points for us.”

Zhang said yes and the two left for the front of the vessel.

Captain Izan had the look and the posture of a man weighed down by worries too heavy for him to handle.

He stood close to the visual viewing window, his thoughts far distant somewhere in the Oort Cloud, it seemed to Zhang and Aldo when they approached the skipper of the Explorer.

The doctor was first to speak. “Sir, I have collated all the personal reports on sleeping disorders on our ship since the beginning of the speed-up in velocity. The conclusions are not at all revealing. It appears that ever since we started to move ahead faster, the rate of insomnia has increased enormously. It now ranges higher than ever before. There is no end in sight, I fear.

“Perhaps we had better return to the speed that we started with on this voyage from the inner Solar System.”

Turan Izan seemed to come to life and boil over with frustration. “You mean to tell me that all our experimentation has led to nothing? That no valid conclusions have resulted from all that has been done aboard this ship?”

It was the physicist who now gave a reply. “I have begun to suspect that we have been looking in the wrong direction for the answer to our medical problem. Years ago, I studied quasi-particle physics when I was majoring in plasmotics. And over the years, I have tried to keep up with the field. The idea has occurred to me that there is something going on within our plasmon engine that no one has ever suspected or even looked for.

“I have attempted, through very abstract thought, to identify what this might be, and how it may be affecting the health of our ailing personnel.”

“What are you talking about?” gruffly inquired Izan, at the end of his patience.

Zhang looked at and spoke to Aldo as if the skipper was not listening or not even there.

“I have searched my memory and my imagination for any trace of a factor within the plasmon tanks that might be causing interference with the operation of the hormonal cycles inside the human brain. Is it possible to find some connection between quasi-particle physics and human psychological functions? I asked myself.

“It did not matter to me how wild or speculative the explanatory concept might be. Was there any force that could tie together such disparate areas of interest as these two?”

“Was there?” interrupted the impatient Captain.

Zhang turned his face and eyes on the latter. “It is conceivable to me that the quasi-particles termed polaritons are overwhelming the plasmons they are supposed to be in fine balance with. An unnoticed surplus of polaritons may be escaping from the great engine and saturating nearby areas of the Explorer.

“I can leap to the wild conclusion that a flood of polariton quasi-particles is being emitted from the engine out into the living areas of our vessel.”

“I take it that nothing of all that you have said can be proven in any way,” said Izan, making a bitter grimace. “How could any of it be prevented from continuing, should it be going on as you described it?”

The physicist, at a loss, did not give an immediate answer. Instead, it was Aldo who suggested a solution that his mind had just imagined.

“If we could become positive that the cause of the problem lay in such escaping quasi-particles, I would propose that the silicon walls of the plasmon engine be screened with carbon sheeting that we are carrying down in our cargo hold. It would be a small price to pay, if taking and using that material could protect the people on board from suffering the ills of sand on the brain. That is what I would propose that we do.”

Both Aldo and Zhang stared directly at the tall giant in charge of the space vehicle.

“It does not sound at all difficult to accomplish,” said the Captain at last. “I shall call upon a platoon of manual operators to do the screening at once, and I can take personal command of the project to see that it is done in an accurate, effective manner.”

The three men began making their plans for completing the job that lay ahead. Could they shield the ship’s personnel from stray, escaping quasi-particles labeled as polaritons?

It took three and a half Earthdays to complete the outside shielding of the plasma engine of the Explorer.

There occurred an immediate falling off of the incidence of new cases of insomnia and sleeping problems.

The idea that a miracle was happening spread everywhere among those on board the ship.

The remainder of the trip through the Oort Cloud saw no new sufferers of sleeplessness. Those who had contracted that illness on previous days now began to recover and slumber normally once more.

Captain Turan Izan breathed with relief. He had acted without scientific proof and his gamble had proven to be successful. The theory of Zhang Rong had been confirmed as correct: something dangerous had been leaking out of the new, advanced plasma engine. That was now blocked and plugged up with sheeting.

The skipper, with the neurologist and plasmon physicist by his side, addressed the crew and passengers over the vessel’s audio system.

“We have today left the sphere of comet activity and are outside and beyond the Solar System,” he happily declared. “And I can tell everyone that a stop has been put to any further increase in brain sand.”

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