Louie needed to reposition the maser; it was off by two centimeters and that was bad. Louie understood bad. Bad meant not good. Bad meant that the humans weren’t happy.
He didn’t understand that two-centimeters was the difference between life and death for the crew of the Totem. Properly aligned, the microwave energy from the maser kept the ship moving at close to two-tenths the speed of light, almost sixty-thousand kilometers per second. Right now, the craft was moving at a sluggish fifty-seven thousand kilometers per second.
Louie, as the sole chimp on the crew, didn’t realize that the maser had fallen out of alignment at the absolute worst possible moment; just as the Totem was performing a gravitational slingshot around the singularity. He just knew that the human crew was not behaving normally. They were feverishly moving from station-to-station, calling out to one another angrily and not in their normal calm and soothing tones. Their behavior frightened him, and he hunkered in a corner petting himself on the head for comfort.
It was a relief when Chief Harris called Louie over. He was standing at a console, surrounded by a group of other human engineers. Louie loped over, remembering not to get excited and use too much of his strength. The hab was spinning only enough to provide half a gee; it would be easy to launch himself across the command deck. For some reason, the humans frowned upon that. Louie preferred the lower gravity and looked forward to the times when hab rotation was slowed, but he knew this was not an appropriate time for low-g play.
“Louie,” said Chief Harris as he knelt in front of him, “we need your help. This is very important. Do you understand?”
Chief Harris stared at Louie for a moment. Humans did that when they weren’t sure if he understood them, but he did. Everything was important to a human. Only rarely did they want to have fun.
“Okay,” said Chief Harris, nodding. “The maser is out of alignment, and that’s bad. Do you know why that’s bad, Louie?”
“Shit,” said one of the humans in the group. “What does it matter if the ape knows why? Just get him to fix it.” Crewman Linda Wuszokski. One of the humans Louie avoided when possible.
Chief Harris puffed out his cheeks and blew a long raspberry of air from between his lips. Louie was impressed; it was a gesture of irritation that crossed species boundaries and was exactly what Louie would have done were he irritated. Most of the time human behaviors puzzled him, but this he understood immediately.
“Because,” said Chief Harris, “Louie will focus better if he understands the urgency of the situation.”
“Who the hell designed a ship with the maser control panel in a chute only a chimpanzee can squeeze into, anyway?” said Wuszokski. “Stupid design – a critical system only the dumb animal can get into.”
Chief Harris ignored the crewman, so Louie decided he would too. Louie was never sure of the social order among humans, but he had learned early on that Wuszokski was not alpha over anyone that he could figure out. Except him. She was angry all the time, and it was Louie who took the brunt of it.
“Louie,” repeated Chief Harris, “Do you know why it’s bad that the maser is out of alignment?”
Louie scratched his head, trying to think. Thinking was easier since the operation, but it was still hard work. Concentration and focus was difficult; at least focus as the humans wanted him to focus. Struggling, he came up with an answer.
“Speed?” he signed tentatively.
“Close,” said Chief Harris. “The maser maintains our velocity – our speed in the direction we want to go. We’re trying to fly around the black hole I told you about yesterday – the one eating the star we came here to observe – and we won’t be able to if we don’t realign the maser. We’re going too slow and we’ll fall into the black hole.”
“Fall in?” Louie signed, his long fingers flawlessly constructing the word letter-by-letter.
Chief Harris nodded again, looking very serious, “If we fall into the black hole, Louie, we’ll die. All of us. Me, you, Wuszokski, the Captain. All of us.”
“Don’t bring me into this, Chief,” said Wuszokski. “I don’t want the monkey doing me any favors.”
Chief Harries glared at the crewman, “Shut the fuck up, Wuszokski. Stop distracting Louie.”
“Fine,” she threw up her hands. “We’re all going to die. There’s no way the ape can fix the maser alignment. I have to remind him three times daily to button up his damned flight suit; he’s not going to remember how to fix this shit.” She sulked and moved to the back of the crowd of humans.
Chief Harris reached and stroked Louie’s head. “Louie, this is more important than anything. I need you to go into the Gemini maser chute, access the control panel, and realign the maser. You do this in simulations all the time. This is the same thing, but this time you’ll be in the real Gemini maser chute and not in VR. Do you understand?”
Louie nodded. He did understand. Chief Harris, his best friend on Totem, needed him to align the maser. He knew how to do that. He also knew how to repair the bio-matter recycler, clean the ion filters, and dispose of compostable materials. He signed his understanding to his friend.
“Good,” smiled his friend as he grabbed Louie’s hand. Together, they walked to towards the command center exit. Once outside, gravity quickly evaporated and both Chief Harris and Louie were weightless. With skill and precision only months in space could perfect, both simians launched themselves across the corridor to the hatch at the far end. Chief Harris spoke to Louie as they flew through the can.
“We’re in bad shape, Louie,” said Chief Harris. “Even if you get the maser aligned we still won’t have enough speed to perform the grav assist we were hoping for.”
“We fall in?” signed Louie nervously.
“I have a plan, Louie. We might be able to make it to L1, the Lagrange point closest to the singularity between the star we’re passing by.”
Louie signed confusion.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Chief Harris. “It means I can get us to a stable spot and stop us from falling in. But I can’t do that until you fix the maser. I won’t have enough velocity to get to L1 unless you realign the maser. Do you understand?”
“Fix maser. Save Totem. Louie live. Friend live.”
“That’s right,” smile Chief Harris. “You do understand, Louie.”
They stopped in front of the chute that led to the Gemini maser control panel. Chief Harris unlocked the panel with his control key and pulled it off. Louie crawled into the panel feet-first and began lowering himself down. He halted and looked at his human friend.
“Want mushrooms,” he signed.
Chief Harris laughed, “You fix the maser, Louie, and you can have double mushrooms tonight.”
Louie hooted happily and lowered himself into the chute, already anticipating the mushrooms at dinner tonight.