The express mail ship shot away from Deneb on a course through several layers of hyperspace towards Earth.
On the bridge, Specialist Ellana twitched her trunk and dutifully announced "Infrared A-spectrum to one,"
Behind her, Detective Bettan wiggled her antanea in frustration, almost popping them out of her hat. "It IS at one," she complained. "Did you mean something else?" she deduced with aplomb.
"Oh yes, sorry," Ellana apologized, hands busy dialling up the Phlebotimous Darkray to an indicated number. "I mean, Infrared Botto-Battley to one."
"I don't have that either," said Bettan, her multifaceted eyes glinting as she tilted her head scanning across the control panels in front of her.
"Oh yes, that's mine," admitted Ellana, forcing herself to curb her sheepishness, and pouncing on the elusive infrared control. She slid it across with seconds to spare, but jarred the console panel loose and needed to fit it back into place.
"You ever feel like there's something.... odd about space travel?" she asked.
"What do you mean?" asked the Detective. "I'm a PHD in space detecting, and nothing contradicts any of my training."
"Well... that's the sort of thing. You know. Why would there be 'Space Detectives'? Why is that a doctorate? Do you have to write a thesis?" She glanced down from her annoyance to quickly toggle the Helioscan Froblicator off.
Bettan bristled, antennae vibrating angrily under her detective's hat, and fixing Ellana with an iridescant glare. She pointedly adjusted it, until they popped out through the antannae holes again. "I studied just as hard as anyone who wrote a thesis," she announced coldly. "There's no need to impugn my--"
"Oh no, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," broke in Ellana hurriedly, waggling her trunk apologetically. "I don't mean to disparage anyone's training. At all. Ever. Especially yours. I mean, Doctor-Doctors don't write theses either. I don't mean you should. I just mean, who in society decided that academics and medicine and detectoring all get the same qualification? I know why the first two, but why Space Detectors? Like, look at me. I'm a specialist. How? Why? Shouldn't I be a specialist IN something? What's my speciality?" She glanced at the console again and hurriedly bent over her console responding to half-dozen alerts which had popped up sequentially while she was speaking, right hand, right hand, trunk, left hand, trunk, right hand again.
"I don't know, what is your specialist?" asked Bettan dutifully, marginally mollified. The beetle woman idly toggled a switch to the right, and then when that didn't seem to help, back to the left.
"I'm not!" cried Ellana. "That's my point. I just do piloting. Not even especially well, it feels like at the moment."
"Spaceships," deduced Bettan authoritatively. "You're a specialist in spaceships. Speaking of which, I haven't had to adjust anything for ages, are you sure everything's ok?"
"It's ok, all the alerts seem to be on my console today," said Ellana. "But what you said, that is just one more thing. All pilots specialize in spaceships. Apart from the Formicologists, maybe. So why are some of us called specialists and some of us aren't?"
Bettan shrugged, antennae wiggling expressively. "Who knows? They told us detective school, know which mysteries to pry into, and which to leave well alone."
Ellana tried to let that lie undisturbed. "We're coming up to the hyper jump in a few minutes," she announced. "Oh, and here's one finally for you, unless I missed it. Polar frame down one."
"Got it," acknowledged Bettan.
But after a moment she spoke up again. "What did you mean about space travel being strange?"
"Like, does it ever seems weirdly designed?"
"Duh!" exclaimed Bettan. "If I could get my grip-claws on the head/thorax joint of whatever pus-swilling bureaucratic engineer put the hyperblanket flange right underneath the bobblehorn where you can't reach it, I'd be a happy beetle-human hybroid. Or whoever decreed we use the low-cost auto-loosening bolts on all the life-critical couple-joints. Or whoever designs a ship from scratch every launch. Or whoever charted the shipping routes through so many asteroid fields. Where did they FIND so many asteroids so close together, that's what I want to know!"
"No. Or rather yes. That's what I mean. It's not just bad. Doesn't it seem... implausibly ridiculous? Even compared to the standards of bad design in, say, planet-bound computer programs? Or political systems? You're right, there AREN'T any asteroid fields like that. Not naturally, not for very long. But we still seem to keep charting courses flying right through them. Lasting wormholes are scientifically impossible. But we still have to keep dodging them."
Bettan shrugged again. "It works," she said.
"Well, that's another thing," added Ellana. "It doesn't. 100% of ships launched are lost to some sort of anomalous space disaster. Either a freak communication failure where someone anti-graps the wobble-boff the wrong way. Or some sort of alien carnivorous goo gets on board and interferes with the controls. Or-- whatever."
Bettan shrugged again, emphatically denying Ellana's point. "But 100% of crews and cargo seem to arrive at the other end ok, and someone manages to make a profit on them. So I wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, not while we're in it and trusting it to get us to Earth in one piece."
There was a short silence at that, as Ellana uncomfortably realised she might be pushing the insect woman too far. But her trunk hung rigid from the middle of her face, as she decided she wasn't willing to give up the argument just yet.
"Well, it gives me the willies," said Ellana with finality, and they both glanced at the third console on the bridge, the willies-est machinery on the ship.
The console only had one control, labelled Overwhelming Probability Adjudicator. It was a lever which rotated through three positions, "Off", "Confusing", and "Guacamole Excitement Hyperbole" and that was currently set to "Confusing". It was mostly obscured by a large translucent plastic-film hazard triangle draped across the top of the console. In addition to the standard maroon "DANGER" decal, a further warning saying "DO NOT USE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, ESPECIALLY IMMINENT DEATH" had been hastily scrawled in black marker. No-one recognized the handwriting.
"Jump initiating," Ellana added. "Hyperspace in three, two, one--"
Three hyperspace transitions later, the ship corkscrewed wildly as it dodged around an incoming wormhole, sending everything inside flying as the artificial gravity cut in and out.
Ellana launched herself half out of her seat, grabbing for a piece of her disintegrating control panel as it swung wildly across the cabin, anchored by only a thin bundle of delicate data cables. The ship lurched again and Ellana urgently pulled the panel closer, grabbing a metal corner as soon as she could to take the strain off the finicky electrics.
She jammed the loose panel roughly against her console and held it down, frantically scrubbing away the leaking coolant fluid caked over the vital Quantum Spiral guage. "Two!" she screamed to Bettan. "Quanspire Two!"
Bettan's head and arms burst triumphantly from a pile of alien guinea pigs which had invaded the cabin. Her natty detective's hat was long lost and her antenae stood out sideways in agitation, her mandibles smeared with grease and guinea pig hair. She lunged for her own control panel, sliding the vital slider down into the second position, and immediately barked out a series of alerts blinking above it. "Pulse ribbontrellis, got it. No label, crouching person symbol. I think that's you. Decontaminant winder, quick, it's almost enreddened."
Ellana jiggled the loose panel and it clunked back into the right place. Her hands flew across the jagged and cracked panels in front of her, making the rapid adjustments to the controls, and half the blinking red lights became green, but ever more alerts rapidly lit up her console.
"We might be fucked," she shouted tersely. She quickly scanned for the most urgent ones, roughly yanking another panel back into place as it unmoored itself and started to drift out of her console. Double paddle, that was here. Hypnobellows, they needed agitating, but the twist-handle had broken off when she'd yanked the first panel and was loose in the cabin somewhere. "Primecrown tangler, almost out of argown," she shouted across to Bettan who was rapidly triaging her own most urgent alerts.
"There's too many," Bettan called. "There must be a gremlin. This trip might be a three-jump-er." She tweaked another two controls, and then her voice stumbled over itself in an incoherent mass of syllables, trying to read too many alerts at once.
Just then Ellana froze in horrified fascination. There was the gremlin, small, green-furred, purple eyes full of mischief, still clutching a guinea-release spanner with which it had freed its cuddly brethren, drifting across the gravity-impaired bridge, inexorably closing on the Overwhelming Probability Adjudicator.
Ellana snapped out of her fugue, abandoning the urgent alerts on her panel, and launched herself away from her control panel in an intercepting arc on the gremlin's trajectory and made a last-second grab for the chuckling beast. But it twisted in the air, avoiding her fingers, and glided on onto the forbidden lever, chittering excitedly and crumpling the hapless warning triangle beneath it. As it slid home the gremlin wrapped all its limbs enthusiastically around the lever and its momentum piled firmly into it. The lever wobbled in place, and then clunked finally over into the third position. The remnants of triangular warning note tore, the tattered remnants flapping freely about the third console.
As Ellana flew past the console out of reach of the unfolded disaster, she twisted to reach futilely towards it. Both pilots watched in horror, but also morbid fascination to see what was--
The calm robotic voice read steadily on. "--the universe will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened."