Russell’s Teapot

— by Dirk Flinthart
“Is that..? No. That can’t possibly be what it looks like.” Untermeyer frowned at the glossy photo on his desk, and pushed it aside. “It’s some kind of a hoax. A prank?”

Mieke faked a cough to cover her gasp of indignation. “Ahhh… no, sir. I wouldn’t do that to you, What would be the point? Besides, this photo comes from my private research. Nobody else knows about it.” She paused. “Well, there are a few technicians who know I was redirecting the scopes during down-time. I can’t operate all those imaging systems by myself. But the data came straight to me.” The big zip-folder under her arm was uncomfortably bulky. There were plenty of corroborating images if Untermeyer insisted. Mieke actually hoped her supervisor would. It would make her feel better about printing and carrying all those photos. If only she could have trusted digital security enough to email them.

Untermeyer picked up the photograph once again, frowning so intensely that his eyebrows merged into a single, bushy white hedge dividing his craggy forehead from the rest of his face. “What in blazes were you doing?” he demanded. “Using multi-million-dollar instruments to image near-earth space? What did you expect?”

“Well,” said Mieke, “Not this. I didn’t really know what to expect, honestly. It’s just that there’s so many imagers up there now. The older ones don’t see as much use as they did. There’s even talk of mothballing some of them. Shutting down their systems and leaving them to orbit until we can figure out what to do with them. They simply don’t have the power and resolution of the current generation of multiscopes. It’s hard to do real science with them. So I thought, you know… I’d try something a bit different.”

The old man’s eyes narrowed still further. “You thought you’d just redirect a telescope designed to pick up light from the beginning of the universe to do a survey of empty space between Earth and Mars.” His left eyebrow shot upwards, drastically realigning the wrinklescape of his face. The old man was long overdue for a skin-rewrite. “How did you even do it? It shouldn’t be possible to collect data from such close range.”

“Software upgrades,” Mieke said. “I put the problem to some friends of mine in engineering, more or less as a hypothetical. I suggested it might be necessary soon in any case. There is precedent, after all. Do you remember back in 2014? When NASA released control of one of its old satellites to a consortium of amateurs? They managed to wake it up again after years of disuse–”

“Yes, but these ‘scopes weren’t exactly disused,” Untermeyer interrupted. “You actually uploaded this software? Made changes to the operational status of these machines?”

“Extended their capabilities, Professor,” Mieke said. “They still do their original work as well as ever. Better, actually. My group found some sub-optimal programming in the Macready Ear, and an entire array of unused routines in the Petersen Gamma Observer.” She waited, a sick feeling in her belly. The whole project sounded crazy, now that she actually had to explain it. What had she been thinking? She could have put the time and effort into her doctoral thesis instead, maybe even finished early. Except the doctoral stuff was so dull! The game with the old scopes had been her pet, her secret, a delightful puzzle to be solved purely because nobody was asking her to solve it. Now the whole thing was a disaster. She’d be lucky if she didn’t get thrown out of science altogether.
Could you actually get thrown out of science?

“Huh.” Untermeyer glared at her a moment longer, then stuck out his hand. “The rest of the images,” he snapped. “Give me.”

“I have back-ups,” Mieke muttered, handing over the folder.

“Of course you do,” said the old man. His eyes glittered. “You’re a scientist. I’m a scientist. What? Did you imagine I was going to destroy all the evidence and suppress this… this…”

“Discovery,” said Mieke. “I’ve discovered an… unexpected object in relatively near-earth space.”

“We’ll see,” said Untermeyer. He unzipped the folder and leafed through the material inside. “This looks like spectrophotometry. You’ve got data on the composition?”

“I arranged for Phobos Base to ping it with an interplanetary comms laser,” Mieke said. “We managed to excite the surface enough to get some emissions readings. It’s… well, it’s a mix of silicon, aluminium and a bunch of other elements apparently bound in a glass-like matrix.”

“You’re allowed to say it,” Untermeyer snapped. “It’s china, isn’t it? It’s made of china.”

Good quality china,” said Mieke. Men never paid attention to the right details. “The data on the composition, coupled with the particular shape and colour of the thing seem to suggest it’s part of a Royal Doulton line that was popular for much of the twentieth century.”

“Royal Doulton?” Untermeyer winced. “You can tell the brand?”

“Educated guess,” Mieke replied, trying not to underline her supervisor’s ignorance. “Obviously, it might be some kind of a replica, but it looks like a Royal Doulton teapot. If we had better data on particle density for that region of space, I might even be able to estimate how long it’s been out there. Micrometeor damage,” she said.

“I’m not an idiot.” Untermeyer flicked through several more images. “Ambient temperature,” he noted.

“Yep. Nobody’s made a fresh cup of tea with it lately,” Mieke essayed a joke. It sank without a trace in the icy seas of her supervisor’s disapproval.

“A teapot,” said Untermeyer. “Unbelievable.” He looked up. “Has this ludicrous project of yours turned up anything else?”

“Some rocks,” said Mieke. “Oh!” She straightened, and tapped her cloudphone. “Here,” she said, offering Untermeyer a link. “I also found the lock-drill that Bonita Camarillo lost during EVA on the second Trans-Ares mission. That was kind of proof-of-concept, you see. We knew when and where the drill was lost, and we knew the course the ship was taking, so there was enough information to extrapolate the probable orbit of the lost drill and establish a search-field. It only took three weeks to pin it down, in the end.”

The look in Untermeyer’s cold, blue eyes was somewhere beyond withering. “You’ve repurposed untold millions of dollars of instrumentation to look for lost tools?”

“It was proof of concept, like I said,” Mieke shifted uncomfortably. “In case something important got lost. I thought, you know, we’ve got all this unused imaging capacity. It could be be helpful to know how to use it this way.”

The old man stared at her in silence until Mieke lost her nerve, and looked away. “Unbelievable,” muttered Untermeyer at last. “A teapot. In space.”

“I tried extrapolating the orbit backwards,” offered Mieke. “To see if it matched any known launches. I got a near-miss with the Mars Climate Orbiter that ploughed in, back in 1999. You know? Where NASA and Lockheed screwed up the metric units of measurement. But if the Teapot came off that mission, it’s got all the wrong velocity. There would have to have been a separate launch facility on the Orbiter itself, and some kind of correction mechanism as well. I think it’s just a coincidence.”

“A teapot,” said Untermeyer again. “Damn.” He slapped his hand down on the photo, and glared at Mieke. “Fine. It’s a teapot. You know what that means, right?”

“Uhh…” From anyone else it would have been a killer straight line, an opportunity to make a crack about milk, sugar, and scones. Mieke swallowed nervously. “No?”

“It means someone put it there,” said Untermeyer. “And that is all it means. You get my drift?” He waved an accusatory finger under Mieke’s nose. “If you want to keep your scholarship, I don’t want to hear a single damned word about Bertrand Russell. Go back over the figures. Find where you went wrong. Somebody launched this… this teapot, and I want to know who.” He stood as if to leave, then paused. “Oh, and put an outline of your thesis in my inbox by Thursday, Miss Wilson. I think I need to have a closer look at what you’ve been doing.”

A leaden hand closed around her heart as she watched the old man leave. Miss Wilson, was it? He only ever resorted to antiquated titles when he was really upset. Why should he be so upset? Sure, it was a teapot in space – but wasn’t that an interesting discovery? Wasn’t that exactly the kind of thing that might bring helpful publicity to the astrophysics programme?

And what had he meant by that crack about her thesis? She wasn’t supposed to have a draft in place for another six months, at least. She didn’t even have all her results yet. How was she supposed to put together a useful outline?

She looked at the photo again. There it was: white, elegant, with lovely clean lines and narrow, gold-leaf bands offering a restrained touch of colour. The lid was even in place, defying both sense and micro-gravity conditions.

Okay. Yes. It was pretty freaky. She thought about it a moment longer, then called up Albert on her cloudphone.

“How can I help you, Mieke?” he said, and pushed the archaic spectacles back up his nose. His friendly smile and crazy white hair reassured her, as always.

“I need a global search, Albert,” she said. “On religion. Can you let me know how many major religions operated during, say, the twentieth century?” Might as well match the period of the teapot.

“I am limiting this search to those groups with more than a million adherents,” said Albert. “Since you didn’t supply a precise definition of ‘major’. I am also eliminating organisations such as Scientology and Reaganistics which have since been identified as ‘cults’. The final result is one hundred and eighty-two, although that figure may change if you disagree with my assessment of various schisms and splinter groups.”

Mieke blinked. Less than two hundred? That wasn’t nearly as bad as she’d expected. “Of those, how many are mutually exclusive in their beliefs?”

“All of them,” Albert replied without hesitating. “It was one of the criteria I used to distinguish them from one another.”

“Thank you,” she said. Even though the avassist was only a software construct, it was hard not to think of him as a person. “Can you organise the list alphabetically for later review? Include a half-page on the major beliefs and practises of each, please.” She flicked the screen away without waiting for a reply.

A hundred and eighty-two. Maybe she could try believing in them sequentially. A week each? That would take less than four years. It would be hard convincing herself to really believe, but there were drugs for that. Maybe she could even write it up as some kind of psycho-social experiment.

Not that it really mattered what anybody else thought. The truth was a lot simpler. And what was four years, anyway? Nothing at all, when you compared it to what was at stake.

She’d managed to find Russell’s Teapot in less than six months. With four years of work, how hard could it possibly be to figure out a winning strategy for Pascal’s Wager?


  1. bangarrr · · Reply

    Nice work

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