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The Hackbolt Fractal

by Jason Earls

Launch day had almost arrived, and Professor Hackbolt was working laboriously to finish the programming of his spacecraft. He sat in his office, alternately running fractal programs for leisure and testing and debugging the rocket engine equation programs for his spaceship. His white lab coat, which he wore constantly, was pristinely pressed. His large nose with two moles, his tousled gray hair, his left eye shooting out to the side, and his thick glasses provided him with an ambiance of intensity most people did not dare disturb.

Professor Hackbolt began his project after NASA announced they were initiating a mission to put a man in orbit around Jupiter. Professor Hackbolt immediately signed up. But he was turned down. No reason given. Only a comment that he should enjoy his retirement.

He had been retired for over seven years, but had thought his qualifications would allow him to be a part of any space exploration mission in the world: he held numerous patents in rocket technology and aeronautics; he had been on the research staff of a number of previous (although top secret and obscure) deep space explorations; and he had even made major contributions to other scientific fields, the most significant of which being fractal mathematics (elegant geometrical self-similar structures). Hackbolt assumed that NASA’s board of directors denied him to be apart of the Jupiter mission because of his age, 67. But that wasn’t the reason. They denied him because of his earlier overwhelming obsession with fractals.

His obsession had begun about five years before. One morning, he was working on the Ras Algethi space probe mission — making calculations and writing programs — when he saw a copy of a book on fractals lying on an assistant’s desk. He glanced through it, not expecting to find the book of any interest. But after only a few pages of scrutinizing the dazzling images and fascinating explanations, it was as if a lightning storm had torched his brain cells. He asked for the assistant’s permission to borrow the book. He took it home. He pored over it for three days straight. Then he wrote programs to produce the fractals and immersed himself in the bewitching worlds of Cantor sets and Sierpinski carpets.

The next morning, he quit the research staff of Ras Algethi, stopped all normal rocket science activities for two years, and discovered what is now referred to in the fractal world as the Hackbolt Lantern. He considered his behavior to be perfectly normal. He only saw himself as pursuing something important and ferociously intriguing. He didn’t realize his colleagues would hold his fractal interests against him.

Now, after applying and being denied for the Jupiter mission three times, he simply decided he and his assistant, Leftwich, would do all the research to build their own ship, invent a machine to produce an antigravity field (since the gravity on Jupiter is roughly 250 times that of Earth), and then Hackbolt would man the ship himself and land on Jupiter. Easy. Nothing to it.

When he wasn’t working like a fire ant, Hackbolt would daydream about being the first man to set foot on Jupiter with his antigravity machine strapped to his back, collect a few samples, and return to Earth a hero. After the mission was complete, he knew he would win a Nobel Prize.

So, Professor Hackbolt, his wife, and Leftwich, moved to New Mexico — somewhere between Portales and Roswell — and set up a clandestine research facility to build the spacecraft. Hackbolt was extremely wealthy from all of his patents, and therefore able to fund the project himself.

But Mrs. Hackbolt didn’t approve of his proposed Jupiter mission. And she had arguments with her husband. Vicious arguments.

She would place both hands on her wide hips. And scream. Her white bangs falling down into her eyes. “You can’t go to Jupiter, you fool! You’re going to kill yourself!”

Hackbolt, however, was a rational man. And full of hubris. He didn’t scream. He would wrinkle his moley nose. And pontificate. “I’m the most qualified. I’ll show them what happens when they refuse to let me be apart of their project.”

And Mrs. Hackbolt would continue her tirade, even though she knew it wouldn’t do any good. The arguments would usually end with her folding her thick arms in front of her cotton dress, and glaring at Hackbolt like a viper. Then she would shake her head, and walk away muttering, “Bull-headed. Bull-headed.”

They worked for a year and two months on the spacecraft and the antigravity machine, surrounded by fierce, unsympathetic desert. And Hackbolt was just as unsympathetic: He drove Leftwich to accomplish things the assistant never thought he was capable of. Hackbolt was so driven, so possessed, they both almost had nervous breakdowns from working so hard. But the ship Hackbolt built was the finest piece of engineering he had ever designed. It was boxy yet tubular, huge yet elegant, modern yet homemade. It was 75 feet by 30 feet of pure innovative genius. And powered by special fractally transformed rocket engines.

The night before Hackbolt’s self-imposed deadline, he completed the programming, then went to sleep, dreaming about iterated function systems, and the feeling of Jupiter’s surface crunching beneath his boots.

* * *

Launch day. Hackbolt climbed into the space-age plastic, heat-resistant seat of his spaceship. Leftwich sat in the control room making some final adjustments. Mrs. Hackbolt cowered a few feet away from Leftwich, gnashing at her fingernails. And out in the spacecraft, Hackbolt still wore his white lab coat beneath his spacesuit.

Leftwich pooched out his lips like Donald Trump, and murmured into the microphone, “Professor, everything is A-okay. Prepare to launch. 10, 9, 8...”

Hackbolt sat with his space helmet crushing down his wild gray hair, perfectly tranquil and confident.

“7, 6, 5...”

Hackbolt ratcheted a dial in front of him.

“4, 3, 2...”

He was ready. Leftwich was ready. Everything was ready.

“1, 0, Blast off.”

Fire exploded from the base of Hackbolt’s ship and immense clouds of smoke poured out and crawled up the rocket’s sides. The rumble was almost enough to bust Mrs. Hackbolt’s eardrums. She shrieked when she heard the cacophony and sprinted out of the control room.

Yet the spacecraft did not move.

The ignited orange rocket fuel continued to blare out, forming miniature mushroom clouds of prodigious puissance.

Leftwich’s lips trembled. His knees bobbed under the work table. “It should be ascending by now.”

But the spacecraft remained anchored to the earth despite the ferocious amount of power escaping all around it.

Leftwich slapped his thigh. He cursed. He threw his glasses to the floor, grabbed his forehead, and squeezed. “Professor, acknowledge. Respond, Professor Hackbolt!”

No launch. And no response from the professor.

Great orbs of ignited rocket fuel shock-blasted out of the bottom of the ship. Off-white smoke transformed to gray. Rose up. Turned black. Choked Leftwich at the controls. Fire continued to balloon out and swish around in a wicked arc of engulfment.

Leftwich pounded on the computer keyboard in front of him. He punched the red panic button to shut down all power to the engines. He stared out. The ship stood vibrating. He sniffed. The air smelled like scorched rats. Leftwich put on his safety suit and visor and ran out to the ship. Mrs. Hackbolt was nowhere in sight. Leftwich lifted a small green panel beside the door of the rocket, fidgeted with something, and the door slid open.

Hackbolt lumbered out of the ship. But the chemical reactions that had occurred inside the spacecraft during the unsuccessful liftoff had caused him to change. Dramatically.

His head was now blue and orange crystalline swirls of fractalized chaos. His arms were mock Seirpinski gaskets and Koch snowflakes. His legs were perfect representations of his own Hackbolt Lantern fractal pattern. In places, his entire space suit had ripped free where his now fractal body had expanded. He had transformed into a trapezoidal mass of geometrical self-similar structures.

Leftwich staggered back. The blinding terror he felt caused him to stutter. “P... Professor H-Hackbolt? W-What has happened? You’re a f-f-fractal c-creature.”

The transmogrified Professor stumbled forward. Gasped for air. His voice was a diseased, harmonized moan of ghastly pitches, “Too many fractal equations, Leftwich. And the antigravity machine. I must have programmed too many fractal equations into the spacecraft’s fuel conversion computers and they interacted with the advanced technology of the antigravity machine. Let’s try again. We’ll get it... We’ll get it...”

Copyright © 2004 by Jason Earls

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