The Foamer

At 4pm ship’s time, Koenig arrived to relieve Alexion. As happened every time she had seen the new crew member on his first trip, Alexion was startled at how young he was. He looked like a baby, with a bolt of yellow blonde hair, a little nub of a nose under sky blue eyes, and stubble so soft it would tickle if you rubbed faces with him.

“Don’t listen to a word he says,” Alexion warned. “He’s a murderer and a psychopath – not necessarily in that order.”

“Isn’t there somewhere more secure we could hold him?” Koenig looked slightly terrified.

“No, there’s no brig on this ship. No one ever thought that a crewman would turn on one of his mates like that. Don’t worry, in another ten hours we’ll be clear of the ecliptic plane of this system and we can go to C-Plus. It shouldn’t take us long to get home after that. We’ll pop up above our own ecliptic only a week or so from Earth, so you’ll probably only have to watch him once or twice after this. Just keep away from him,” Alexion warned again as she walked away.

She hadn’t been gone three minutes when the door of Trainor’s quarters slid open, giving the young guard a start. Oddly, Trainor didn’t look at all like the crazed killer and hardened criminal Koenig had expected (although in truth he hadn’t known what to expect; Trainor was his first murderer).

The much older Trainor had soft, approachable grey eyes in a well-padded round face with deep laugh lines, grey-white eyebrows and whiskers, and full red lips that always seemed about to part in a wide smile. It was hard to believe that he’d bludgeoned poor Nilson to death out by Daxan IV.

“Don’t talk to me,” said Koenig. “Go back inside and close the door.”

“What’s your name, son?” Trainor’s voice was as soft and warm as his face, and there was a lilting melody even in that short sentence.

The young man answered with a single, wary word, almost in spite of himself. “Koenig.”

“The foamer isn’t up to it,” said Trainor simply, and a little sadly.

“The foamer?” Way to not start a conversation, Koenig said to himself as the words came out.

“They let you into the union without basic knowledge of C-Plus flight?” asked the old man. Koenig shrugged, unwilling to invite further discussion.

“You know, the Faster Than Light Transit Workers Union used to be such a proud organisation.” Trainor seemed sadder than before. “When I joined – and I was one of the first – every member knew every other member, and what they did. Not just their titles, their actual jobs. Now here you are, a green kid who doesn’t even know what the most important person on the crew does.”

“I work in the kitchen,” the boy said, shrugging again. He knew he was being drawn in, but he had to ask. “So what does a foamer do?”

“You may know the official title: Intuitor.” The kid’s face remained blank, and the old man sighed. “Before and during C-Plus flight – C being the speed of light, of course – the Intuitor psychically taps into the sub-quantum level of spacetime, the quantum foam, and explores the entire route. The aim is to search for the ripples and waves that signal the presence of anything that shouldn’t be in that part of theoretically empty space – stray comets, asteroids, or anything else, down to the tiniest dust mote. If just one tiny particle is detected, the foamer can instantly terminate C-Plus status and the ship proceeds at normal sub-C until a new route can be plotted. I’m sure even a boy like you can imagine what would happen if we encountered even a grain of sand at a speed several hundred times that of light.”

The boy’s eyes widened.

“And, as I say, the foamer that’s standing in on this flight because I am suddenly indisposed, is not up to the task.”

“How do you mean?”

“It takes an enormous amount of training to successfully intuit a long C-Plus flight. You need to cultivate an extraordinary sensitivity to and empathy with the foam, to ‘see’ it clearly in your mind, to comprehend the dimensions that pop in and out of existence, and to be able to tell disturbances like that from those caused by the actual gravity waves of even the smallest pieces of matter. We’re travelling through a vast and mysterious sea of sub-quantum spacetime, so it requires incredible reserves of mental strength and attentiveness. It’s exhausting. And I don’t need to remind you of the consequences of a single mistake, omission or oversight. Now, Gimball, the young foamer shortly to occupy my seat in the isolation room where this all takes place, will one day be a worthy master of the craft. She has already intuited several short C-Plus flights under my supervision, and she possesses the requisite empathy and perception, and her concentrative skills improve with every outing. But she lacks experience and finesse, and this is a long C-Plus journey.”

“You’re just saying that to scare me. You’re a murderer and a psychopath.”

Trainor slowly shook his head from side to side, as if he was trying to gently dissuade a slow moving fly from landing on him. “I wish that were true, boy. And by the way, I didn’t want to kill Nilson, I had to.”

“Liar.”

“You don’t have to believe me about any of this, Mr Koenig, but I swear to you as a fellow member of the FTLT workers union, a foamer of spotless reputation and track record, and as a human being – Nilson was a mutineer. He and a group of seven or eight others were planning to kill Captain Algen and divert the ship to Ennivar, where there is a buyer waiting for our cargo of charybdium. They needed me to join their plot because the foamer goes into isolation to start communing with the route two hours before the transition to C-Plus and the actual mutiny may not take place until after that. The navigator is already on board with the conspiracy, and Nilson was given the task of recruiting me. I refused; he threatened me; we fought. I won.” Clearly the old fellow was stronger than he looked – if his story was true.

“Shut up, go back inside and close the door.” Koenig was trying to be authoritative, but there was a tremor in his voice. He was confused and starting to waver.

“I think I’ll just stay here and talk to you, if you don’t mind.” Trainor’s look and tone were amiable and his voice was compelling. Koenig stood quiet, waiting; affecting nonchalance.

“I can see you’re nervous,” said Trainor. “About me, about this journey and your job, and now about Gimball and maybe Alexion and the mutineers. I am sorry. I didn’t want to alarm you.” He seemed genuine.

“You’re just trying to gain my confidence. I’ve heard psychopaths are good at that.”

“So are empaths, son.”

Koenig folded his arms, looked away. He wished he was back in the kitchen. Trainor began to talk in that achingly reasonable tone, every word redolent of compassion and sincerity. He spoke of journeys he’d undertaken, of planets, cultures and sights he’d seen. As much as Koenig didn’t want to be pulled into the old foamer’s world, every story had the ring of truth about it, and every time he looked – initially with great reluctance but then with growing frequency – into the old man’s eyes, he saw honesty, authenticity and candour.

The hours went by, with Trainor filling the time by recounting an endless array of fascinating stories. Koenig, young and inexperienced but yearning for adventure and exhilaration, became absorbed. He asked questions and allowed himself to get excited at the visions Trainor was painting with his words, entranced by the strangeness and allure of the places and being described, and seduced by the measured, mellifluous tones of the old man’s voice. They became friends.

Then Trainor spoke of the mutiny being plotted by a number of the ship’s crew. He wondered aloud whether Gimball had been effectively recruited, and guessed that the answer was yes because Gimball was not dead, nor had she killed or disabled any other crew member. The helmsman may or may not be a mutineer, he speculated. Most likely he was, but Trainor assumed that the formal mutiny would take place on the cusp of the transition to C-Plus travel, at which time the Captain would be detained, or worse, and the helmsman pressed into service or replaced. Unless he was already a mutineer, of course, which was more likely. The rest of the crew would have no choice but to fall in with the mutiny. In any event, with the foamer on their side, the insurrection could accomplish the flight to Ennivar with very few compliant others.

So, it might go well for them. At least for Koenig. Once the need for a pretense regarding Trainor had been removed, he supposed he would be removed too. So be it. Perhaps the inexperienced Gimball would ‘feel the foam’ completely and they would pop out near Ennivar without incident – after all, stray items were rare in interstellar space, so they might get lucky. Even though there was an awful lot of space to cover. Then once the transaction had been completed and the charybdium transferred, maybe Koenig and the rest of the non-complicit crew would be released unharmed. Clearly the ship would not – could not – be returning to Earth, so how Koenig and the others might make it back there from Ennivar was another matter.

“So much to think about. And now just two and a half hours to C-Plus transition,’ said Trainor. ‘Gimball will need to go into isolation to tap into the foam two hours prior. Once she’s in there, it’s all over. Maybe I should have said yes to Nilson. Oh well.” He sighed. “You’ll be relieved any minute now. I guess this is it for us, son.” He held out his hand and Koenig accepted it. It was strong and warm. Personal. Trainor held the young man’s hand for longer than anyone who’d ever shook it had, and looked into those young eyes. “Good luck, my boy. Whatever happens, you are a credit to your parents, yourself and our union. I hope you live long enough to truly understand faster than light travel.”

A few minutes later, Rennon arrived to relieve Koenig. As she approached, the young man looked from her to Trainor, who responded with an almost imperceptible nod. In one fast move Koenig plucked a fire extinguisher from its niche on the wall, and smashed it into Rennon’s skull.