|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 1||December, 1998|
"They're going to name a school after me, you know," the captain said to the technician who was finishing the third and final check of the seals on his flight suit. "Whether I die out there in the distant, lonely black or make it back home safely without incident, they'll probably name a school after me." He grinned, obviously very pleased with the notion.
"Well," grunted the technician, "they're gonna do a lot more than that, sir."
Tight-lipped and serious, the captain nodded sagely. "Mmmm... Yep," he said. Then he tugged at the suit, his mood changing to something more impish. "Would you remind me again, please, why I have to wear this silly get-up? What am I doing in a vacuum-safe spacesuit--" He paused as another technician slowly lowered the suit's helmet over his head and locked it to the metal collar of the suit. He sighed.
A third technician switched on the suit's communication unit, and the captain continued. "--a vacuum-safe spacesuit with a portable life support unit? All I'm doing today is riding out of the Earth's gravity well on a routine ground-to-low-Earth-orbit shuttle. We fly dozens of these missions a month, you know. Once I'm in space, I'll be transferring to a long-range transport for a boring two-week flight out past the Davis Array and the outer limits of the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt to rendezvous with the Keldysh. Then it's another two weeks while we go through the final checklist before we really start this mission up." He raised his arms, partly in exasperation, but mostly because the second technician indicated he should do so while she checked a few life support connections. "Why the spacesuit now? Nothing's really going to happen for another month!"
The trio of technicians laughed. The captain had been complaining about this aspect of the mission for almost six months. It had become a ritual. "The public wants a hero in a spacesuit, Captain," they intoned in unison, acolytes of a strange, space-age priesthood. It was at Concordat Aerospace Administration Director Grodonov's insistence that they parade around in space suits before boarding the shuttle that would take them on an almost insignificant portion of a much greater journey.
"Feh," grunted the captain, who couldn't withhold a wry grin at that moment if he'd wanted to. "I know, I know. It's just so ridiculous. I wonder if Gagarin felt like this. Or Shepard or Glenn. And what about Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin? I hope they had days like this. Or Crippen and Young. Or Hitomi and Louis."
The third technician looked up from his fine-tuning of the portable life support unit. "Who? Ga-who?"
Inside, the captain was crushed. Kids these days had no respect for the past. He didn't let his disappointment show, however. "Ah, ancient history. Forget about it." He stood up and stretched, then turned slowly around to face the technicians, an index finger raised. A sense of urgency in his voice betrayed his outward appearance of calmness. "On second thought, don't forget about it. Remember them, all of them. Especially the ones who never made it back. Look it up when you go home tonight, kids. Gagarin, Tereshkova, Leonov, Shepard, Glenn, Grissom, White, Chaffee, Armstrong, Collins, Aldrin, Crippen, Young, Scobee, Smith, Resnik, Onizuka, McNair, Jarvis, McAuliffe, Hitomi, Louis, countless others. Never forget them. Never." In an effort to cover his increasing anxiety, to put both himself and the young technicians at ease, he winked at the kids, flashing his trademark closed-mouth grin that had been appearing on magazine covers throughout the Concordat over the past several months. "Never."
A fourth technician entered the white prep room. "Captain?" she asked. "Are you ready? It's time."
He sighed. "Yep." Then he laughed. "Ready. Huh. How ready can one man be for the most monumental event in all of recorded human history...four weeks before it takes place?"
They all laughed as they walked casually out of the prep room. The captain paused and turned back to take one last look. It was a simple, utilitarian, white room, just like any other prep room found at space ports all around the Solar System, all throughout the past two thousand or more years of space-age human history. Still, he wanted to memorize every detail of it, of everything he did, of everywhere he went, of everyone he talked to, now, at this moment, one hour before the final countdown on the first leg of the crazy voyage he was about to lead.
"Ah well," he sighed. He turned back to the technicians who were waiting patiently for him. "You know they'll name a school after me? 'Elido Carlomagnes Elementary School.' I like the sound of that."
They walked the Walk; it was the same Walk the very first pioneering astronauts had walked. The seven of them, the Earth-bound crew of the HCS Keldysh, walked slowly through the launch complex on the island of Puerto Rico. The remaining two of the nine-person team were already en-route to the Keldysh from Mars. The seven appeared at a large set of double doors flanked by an honor guard of Concordat Marines in full ceremonial regalia. They walked down the wide corridor lined with technicians, politicians, administrative staff, janitors, school children, businesspersons, clergy, fellow astronauts, reporters, people from all walks of life. The air was charged with tense, eager excitement, for the crew of the Keldysh would be the first human beings to travel to another star system via a Tannhauser Discontinuity, a tunnel through the fabric of space that permitted instantaneous travel from one part of the universe to another.
The crew was lead by Captain Elido Carlomagnes of the Concordat Navy, an experienced test pilot. Second in command, following close at his heals and walking perfectly in synch, was Commander Colleen Ehmke, the mission's navigator and astronomer. Behind her was the chief medical doctor, Lieutenant Commander Valentin Sakarov. Next strode the lanky backup medical doctor, Lieutenant Johann Takahashi from Mars. The petite Lieutenant Noriko Saotome, the Gatedrive engineer, came next, followed by Lieutenant Emmanuel "Manny" Vasquez, the in-system engineer and secondary shuttle pilot. At the end of the procession walked Lieutenant Alysin Nambudripod of the Concordat Army Engineer Corps, the mission's geoscience specialist from Mars. Lieutenant Elizabeth "Spider" Wolfram, the chief engineer, and Lieutenant Thomas "Mac" Sturgeon, the primary in-system and shuttle pilot, both from Mars, would meet the rest of the crew at the Keldysh.
The crowd erupted with cheers as the astronauts made their way down the corridor; the men, women, and children reached out to touch the seven who would brave the stars. They blessed them, thanked them, and wished them well.
Elido strode forward, proud, calm, and sure, smiling and nodding at the people, shaking their hands. Glancing further along the corridor, he stopped up short.
At the far end stood the two most important people in the world as far as he was concerned. The smaller of the two, the young girl, ducked underneath a velvet rope banister and rushed toward him, crying, "Papa! Papa!"
His heart dropped through his feet, and he almost collapsed. He steadied himself, slowly dropped to one knee, and raised his faceplate. His vision blurred, and he blinked away tears.
The three-year-old girl leapt into his arms, her long, blue-dyed pigtails brushing his face like a fine spring rain. Kelly Ann Carlomagnes reached out a tiny hand and wiped her father's eyes. Over one hundred on-scene cameras recorded the moment or broadcast it live around the world, the Solar System. Every editor of every magazine, newspaper, netfeed, and nightly news broadcast desperately hoped their camera crews were catching this scene on disk, or they hoped their budget could afford to buy the images for their front pages.
"H-hi, babydoll," Elido managed to choke out.
"Hi!" she squealed. She planted a delicate kiss on his forehead. Her tiny, cool lips and the scent of her favorite shampoo contrasted sharply with her warm breath that smelled of a cornflake-and-orange-juice breakfast.
He was too choked up to reply, and in the absence of words, he simply smiled at his daughter.
"Don't cry," she said, brave and wise. Holding up three fingers, she continued, "I'll see you in two months." She looked at her raised hand and scratched her head with the other. "Um, three months." Orange juice, cornflakes, and scrambled eggs, he thought, and that purple shampoo she loved so much. She kissed him again, then added, "I love you." She squirmed out of his arms and backed away, waving.
He breathed slowly as she retreated, then stood up. "Don't go getting married, okay?" he said.
"NO WAY!" she shrieked, sticking out her tongue. "Yuck!"
Only the Marines managed not to laugh, and only just barely, from what Elido could tell.
Kelly leapt into the outstretched arms of her mother, standing tall and calm. Cassandra Carlomagnes smiled at her husband, winked, and waved. "Silly ape," she mouthed, and Elido laughed out loud. They'd already said their goodbyes a few nights before, on the shore of the family lake, his head in her lap as they watched the night sky for meteors and satellites. "I'll miss you," he had said over and over until she'd been forced to stuff a handful of green grass into his mouth. "Hush, you silly ape," she said. "A thousand 'I'll miss you's can never make up for this moment."
It was time.
Four weeks later, on January 7, 4650, out beyond the limits of what was usually defined as the Solar System, the HCS Keldysh drifted alone. It was huge, ugly, utilitarian, and utterly lacking rational aesthetic sense. Simultaneously, it was the most beautiful piece of human engineering in recorded history. Nestled in the cocoon-like flight deck halfway along the ship's spine, seven human beings sat strapped into their acceleration couches. The other two crew, Spider Wolfram and Noriko Saotome, sat in similar couches near the ship's fusion reactor and particle accelerator.
Outside, a steady stream of high-energy particles flowed from the bow of the Keldysh and disappeared several hundred meters away into the Tannhauser Discontinuity designated TD-2, the second Discontinuity discovered in the Solar System. TD-2 gradually expanded as the Keldysh poured energy into it. The light show of secondary effects cast a baleful glow on Elido and his crew through the viewports of the flight deck.
"Know what I don't get?" asked an impatient Mac Sturgeon.
"Just about everything?" ventured Valentin Sakarov, seated in front of the in-system pilot.
"Haha, very funny, Doc," he snarled in good humor, punching the back of her acceleration couch. "No, it's all the pomp and circumstance over the past month...well, more, really. The past six months. We've been gearing up for what has got to be the greatest adventure of all time, and in the end, it's completely unspectacular! What a waste!"
Beside the shuttle pilot, Alysin Nambudripod raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Excuse me, what?"
"Yeah, you heard me--"
"What about the show outside?" asked the geoscientist, gesturing out the viewport.
"Ah, special effects are a dime a dozen. That could be anything out there, really. No, I want to feel it!"
Johann Takahashi made a show of reaching across to Mac and feeling his forehead for signs of illness, despite the vacuum helmets sealed shut over both men's heads. "You feeling okay there, Mac?"
"Seriously! Look, think back to the good old days, a few thousand years ago. The first astronauts. Gagarick and Shetland--"
"Gagarin and Shepard," corrected Elido and Colleen simultaneously.
"Yeah, those guys. Back then, they got to push GO and they got their money's worth! Rumbling, shaking, intense acceleration, a noise louder than god. The whole world about to tear itself apart. The beginning of the end. And they sat atop what amounted to a controlled bomb--a barely controlled bomb, I might add. What do we get?"
"A beautiful light show?" suggested Manny Vasquez, pointing out the port along with Alysin.
"Yeah, lights. Woohoo. We push GO inside our quadruple redundancy haven of safety, and then we WAIT. Guys, we've been waiting here now with nothing happening for SIX HOURS. Six hours!"
"There's the light show..." repeated the in-system engineer.
"Bah, you can have your light show, Manny! I want excitement! I want this ship to tear itself apart!"
"I don't," said the soft voice of Spider Wolfram over the intercom from engineering.
"Hai!" chirped Noriko Saotome from her position near the particle emitter that ran along the spine of the ship. "Not until we see how this goes, anyway." Her transmission was garbled slightly with static. "If you want a weapon-based vehicle, this ship is a pretty good substitute for a bomb, Macku-san. This particle accelerator would make a good weapon." A loud POP from Noriko's transmission caught everyone by surprise.
"Sorry!" she said finally, just as Elido was starting to worry. "Um, we've lost a supercon battery here. No, wait, it looks like a whole bank of them."
"Nuts," said Elido. "Can we still make it, Nori?"
There was a short pause while the Gatedrive engineer assessed the situation. "Hai! Most of this bank had already drained, so we're really only about five percent under projected efficiency. Since we've over-projected our needs for this phase anyway, we should still be okay. Once we get wherever we're going, we can replace this bank with some of the spares."
"Okay, good work, Noriko." Elido turned his head slightly over his shoulder for Mac. "Was that what you were looking for, Mac?"
"No, sir. Well, it was close. But still, you have to admit, this is friggin' boring!"
"Huh," snorted Elido. The estimated time-remaining counter ticked down towards ZERO as the energy in the Tannhauser Discontinuity approached Opening Threshold. "Well, things are going to get pretty exciting real fast, folks. We've only got a few seconds left, now. I bet this ride is going to be a lot more interesting than anything Shepard or any of the others ever experienced..."
Early efforts at exploiting the Tannhauser Discontinuity to travel enormous distances in an instant had used plants and animals as test subjects. All too often, the animals had returned deeply disturbed. It was widely assumed that the human psyche could better withstand the effects of transit via TD; at the very least, psychologists assumed that any adverse effects on the human mind could be treated. Still, there was a certain amount of risk and the possibility that the crew might not survive.
The counter reached ZERO.
The positron beam shut down.
An immeasurable distance in front of the HCS Keldysh--a distance nevertheless known to the nearest centimeter--a pool of black water wavered, rippled, turned white, reached out for the crew, for the ship, for the collective hope of the human race, and gradually dispersed away into nothingness.
Of the Keldysh, of Elido, of his crew, there were no signs that they'd ever been there.
"Forever" merged with "now."
Entropy remained constant; the arrow of time screeched to a cartoon halt in mid-flight and hung motionless in a frozen thought. The Universe ceased to exist, and Elido was cast off, adrift in an instant, mired in eternity.
He fractured beneath an onrushing wave of the forces of Fate and Chance. A thousand different realities converged on him, slammed into him, brushed past him like a howling wind, at once both icy hot and searing cold. He was buffeted by a surge of pungent, smoky, rose-sweet, sulphurous, cinnamon-scented noise. A stream of faintly musical, overwhelmingly deafening, thunderous light washed back over and through him, loud and relentless. He gasped and tried to catch his breath at the scent of red, green, blue, black, white, magenta, cyan, yellow flavors that tore through his senses.
Dazed, Elido looked up through a two-meter tall tunnel of thought and out through a gateway of jumbled perception, from the liquid cold floor of the spaceship that never was, where his center of consciousness was nestled snugly in his own boots, dashed onto a shore of nothingness, where the splitting agony of a headache was, for a moment, his only reality.
At the same time, he sat silently, a peaceful, close-mouthed grin on his face; his wide eyes saw god. He asked her the meaning of life.
She told him.
Elido had seen god once before. It was in the intensive care unit in the maternity wing of Santa Maria's Hospital in New San Juan. Kelly Ann, prematurely induced into birth to save both Cassandra and the child, lay nestled safely in a plastic incubator that sat atop a cold, metal cart beside a bank of instruments. Nearby, dozens of other carts held other fragile lives.
It was a place of true irony, Elido had thought. Hospitals were gloomy places; one went to a hospital when one was injured or ill. Often, the worst news a person would ever hear would come from a hospital. The maternity wing was different, though. New life emerged from the maternity wing. It was a happy place--except around the ICU. There lurked the irony: Tucked away in the one bright spot in an otherwise depressing and gloomy place, surrounded by happy, new life, the ICU was a terrifying room. It was there that the happiest people ever to live--any new parent--could become the saddest, the angriest, the most desperate. All it took was the flip of the wrong card from Fate's deck.
Elido had never been so scared in all his life. He'd never felt so completely helpless as when he saw his daughter lying in that incubator.
Naked except for a diaper absurdly larger than her own head, wrapped in soft pink blankets, an arm protruding from the bundle, linking her tiny life to an indifferent monitor, Kelly lay on her stomach, her pretty little face turned away from Elido's. A leg poked out at the opposite end, where an intravenous tube fed her a steady supply of nutrients through a vein in a foot smaller than Elido's nose. Another monitor listened to the pulse in her neck and to her breathing. A third monitor stretched forth a dozen wires, taped mercilessly to her forehead, relentlessly measuring her life.
The room had exactly the silence of a fighter recovery bay aboard an old space carrier, open to hard vacuum, and yet, defiantly, dozens of computers beeped rhythmically as the tiny lives entrusted to their care struggled on. Kelly's monitors chirped softly, in synch with the rise and fall of her tiny little chest, of her tiny little sighs, of the tiny little dreams adults spent their entire lives desperately seeking.
Her tiny hand was wrapped in a gentle grip around a single, slender, adult index finger: Her mother's finger was sneaked in through a small hatch in the side of the incubator. Cassandra Carlomagnes, bedraggled, weary, exhausted after the ordeal of bringing her child forth, sat silently beside her, her mouth barely closed, her eyes memorizing every hair on the child's head, every rise and fall of her breathing, every tiny flexing of every muscle.
There! Where Kelly's tiny hand was wrapped around Cassandra's index finger! God was there, silent, loving, kind, gentle, full of grace and compassion. Elido never really understood why he wept then, or why tears sprung to his eyes whenever he thought of that moment, or why his chest tightened at the memory.
Elido once had the rare opportunity to see god a second time, a year later, shortly after Kelly had turned one. Deep within the atmosphere of Jupiter, piloting an experimental, neutrally buoyant exploration vehicle, he had passed through a cloudbank that was taller than his homeland stood on end, and emerged into more open atmosphere than existed on all of Earth and Mars combined.
He broke through the clouds with his attention focused on the ship's instruments, where an unexpected anomaly chirped, begging for his attention. He swatted the side of the instrument box, but the anomaly persisted. He frowned, shaking his head. "Huh," he grunted, then returned his attention to the visual sensors.
Impossibility stared back at him.
The creature was gigantic. It would have dwarfed the 4640 World Series Stadium on Syria Planum, on Mars, the largest single, land-bound structure humankind had created in recent recorded history.
Years later, while tucking his daughter into bed for the night, telling her fanciful stories of the things he'd seen in his lifetime, he would describe the creature as a jellyfish. Inside himself, though, his soul would laugh hysterically, shouting that the term "jellyfish" didn't do justice to the complex beauty of the creature's translucent blue body.
Elido studied the creature for only a few minutes. It was as much as he could bear. The creature's "eyes"--plainly not eyes, but plainly serving a similar function to Earth-life's eyes--cut right through him, bored right into the core of his being. It floated before him, regarding him impassively. It seemed to say to him, "I know you more than you can ever know yourself, and yet I choose to pay you the merest fraction of attention. I do not acknowledge you as more than a passing curiosity. You are not worthless to the Universe, merely to us. Leave us." Beyond the lone sentinel, hundreds of kilometers distant, Elido could see more of its kind. A bittersweet sound echoed over the ship's speakers piped in from the external pickups, a mournful song from these great and gentle creatures.
He backed the ship slowly away, retreating into the cloudbank, into obscurity. Before returning to base, he deliberately took the ship close to an electrical storm, and casually deleted the previous few hours' worth of telemetry, thankful that Jupiter's atmosphere prevented constant, live monitoring of the vessel's journey. As the ship neared the one bar pressure "surface" of Jupiter and he caught a glimpse of the rising sun, something moved through him, a peaceful spirit, a sense of wonder. His breathing quickened and he almost blacked out.
It was exactly as he had felt in the intensive care unit in the maternity ward of Santa Maria's with his wife and newborn daughter. For the second time in his life, he had been witness to a miracle, to "Peace" spelled with an uppercase "P." He wasn't a particularly religious man, but Elido Carlomagnes thought he'd been blessed.
He declined the opportunity for further test flights, and rushed home to the Earth, the warm embrace of his wife, and the happy giggles of his baby daughter. The creature was not meant for humanity to discover. Not yet.
A few months later, after the ship's second test run, Elido had exchanged a curious glance with the new test pilot, and he knew she had made the same choice he had. They both knew: Each had met the creatures, each had chosen to keep their existence to themselves, to let the creatures alone. Elido was confident that future test pilots would keep equally quiet; a year later, funding for the project dwindled away, and, at most, only five humans had ever known of the existence of those wonderful blue creatures living deep in Jupiter's atmosphere.
A third opportunity to meet god?
Elido smiled, and asked her the meaning of life.
She smiled and whispered it into his ear.
Woummmm. The Universe thrummed back into existence an instant after it had ceased to be.
The cartoon arrow of time sped on once again at the rate of one second per second, and entropy continued its relentless, gradual increase. The HCS Keldysh emerged from a pool of light in another solar system. It drifted silently as the crew members slowly regained their foothold on their individual existences.
"Captain? Captain?" A gentle hand shook Elido's shoulder, and he looked up at Colleen Ehmke through watery eyes, tears streaking down his face. "Captain? Are you alright?"
Elido Carlomagnes sobbed quietly. "I forgot," he finally managed to choke out.
Colleen raised an eyebrow in concern and gestured to Valentin Sakarov. "Forgot...what?"
He sniffled, then dug clumsily through the pockets of his spacesuit, his bulky, gloved hands getting in the way. Finally he gave up when he realized handkerchiefs weren't part of standard issue space gear. Instead, he wiped his nose on the sleeve of the suit. "I knew it, Col. I knew it. For a brief moment, I knew the meaning of life." He shuddered. "And then I forgot it."
The HCS Keldysh drifted through space, held in a fragile embrace by a pair of old stars. The binary system had no official name yet, merely a numerical designation; the Interplanetary Astronomical Union back on Earth had held off on proclaiming an official name until its exact location could be determined. Much to the IAU's chagrin, however, the press had been referring to the system as "Portal," the name given the system by the team that had sent the first Vanguard I automated Gatedrone more than one hundred years previously.
After a few hours of uneventful orbit, a few short bursts of vaporized reaction mass gently nudged the Keldysh into a slow spin until its nose pointed at Portal-A, the brighter of the two stars. The spaceship deployed a half dozen gossamer wings that stretched forth from the ship, unfurling like flower petals. The wings slowly aligned with the star, presenting a maximum of flat surface so that the solar cells could collect as much energy from Portal-A as possible. The spaceship's fusion reactor would be devoted exclusively to recharging the superconducting batteries; the solar arrays would provide energy for life support.
The Keldysh continued to unfold, a complex mechanical creature slowly coming to life. Radio receiver dishes deployed and telescoping antennas stretched out. Finally, midway along its length, just past the flight deck, the crew habitat section of the ship extended outward at the end of a long, narrow boom oriented at right angles to the spine of the vessel. On the opposite side of the ship, a massive counterweight extended out on a similar boom. Slowly, gradually, the habitat and counterweight began to rotate around the Keldysh's long axis, providing an artificial sense of gravity for the habitat's occupants.
Elido reclined on the bunk in his cabin, leaning up against the cabin wall with his hands clasped behind his head. On the other side of the bulkhead was wide-open space. For the thousandth time, he shook his head, somewhat bewildered at the thought of his being one of the first human beings to travel to another star system. There had been the Argo ships launched during the Thirty-Second Century, of course, but no one had ever heard back from them.
"Huh," he snorted. "No one has ever reported hearing back from the Argos," he corrected himself.
He sighed and picked up his PDA, once again dragging his attention back to the large volume of reports his crew had generated on arrival in the alien star system. He had the PDA output mirrored on the cabin display screen at the foot of his bunk; the larger text on the wall was easier to read.
According to the reports, everything was operating smoothly. "Nominally" was how Spider and Noriko preferred to describe the situation, ever the cautious pessimists when it came to their personal work, especially when it involved experimental technology. "Smooth" was too upbeat and positive an expression to them; the term "nominal" acknowledged that things could go wrong at any moment.
Noriko had already begun replacing the ruined superconducting battery bank with Manny Vasquez' and Spider's help. They had plenty of spare parts; reaching the alien suns was only half the mission. Returning safely was the other half. To that end, the Keldysh carried enough spare parts to completely replace the Gatedrive system's particle accelerator, superconducting batteries, and, perhaps most astonishingly, fusion power plant.
Colleen had started taking astronomical measurements of surrounding space, gathering data that would help her pinpoint their location relative to Sol. In addition, the Keldysh's instruments were engaged in a survey of the local star system, hunting down planets and asteroids. So far they'd found nothing, a result that didn't bother Colleen too much.
Alysin Nambudripod, on the other hand, was sorely disappointed. Her primary assignment on the mission was to perform a geological survey of the system. Without any planets in the system to study, she had felt useless. Colleen's efforts to reassure the geoscientist didn't help much. It was difficult for Alysin to accept that they shouldn't expect to find any planets in the system mere hours after their arrival. A lengthy discussion about parallax and Kepler's Laws had finally managed to ease Alysin's mind somewhat; nevertheless, she was still frustrated. To give the restless scientist something to do, Elido had assigned her to check over the satellite probes that would be dispatched when any suitable planets were eventually discovered, and was considering giving her shuttle maintenance duty with Mac.
Mac was Mac, and seemed to have enough on his hands simply checking out the Keldysh's two shuttles, the Eagle and the Intrepid. Elido had watched Mac for a few minutes before retiring to his cabin; the pilot treated the shuttles as if they were his children, and spoke of them like a proud parent, which amused Elido.
The two medical doctors were already deeply entrenched in the data they had collected from the crew in the post-transit physical checkups. The arguments had begun almost immediately, with Valentin and Johann butting heads over the physiological causes of the psychological experiences the crew had undergone in that instant during which they'd made the jump through the Tannhauser Discontinuity. Johann insisted that it had all been purely psychological; Valentin insisted Johann was a burnt-out drug addict and armchair philosopher who didn't believe in a physical reality anyway, and of course the manifestations had a physical origin! After all, traveling through a TD was equivalent to jumping through a black hole, where gravitational tidal forces would tear a physical body apart. Obviously the jump would shock the nervous system! Clearly there's no physical existence, rebutted Johann. How else could they survive an experience that should tear them apart?
Elido rolled his eyes and set down his PDA at the memory of their argument. It didn't help that Valentin was right, that Johann had once been a serious drug user. That had been precisely why he'd been selected for the mission, according to the brass: Johann Takahashi had sampled every hallucinogenic, mind-altering substance known to human science. After the early Gatedrone experiments, it was known that the jump could have profound psychological effects on the crew. Johann was expected to stand a better chance of enduring the jump than anyone else aboard, and as such, would presumably be able to keep his fellow humans sane--or bring them back from the brink of madness if necessary.
Elido picked up the PDA again and flipped through the reports until he found the section filed by each crewmember describing their experiences during the transit through the TD. "Mildly unpleasant" was how nearly every member had characterized the jump. The general consensus was that it was too complex and too personal an event to explain concisely in a written report.
The only exception to the two-word description was Johann's single word: "Boring," he had written. He claimed the jump wasn't nearly as interesting as the week-long drug-induced state he'd spent at the bottom of Valles Marineris on Mars at some kind of new-age music festival. He'd spent that week listening to a production of a piece of classical music that was performed--live--at 1/350th its intended speed. Apparently, the entire production, when played back at 350 times its recorded speed, sounded pretty close to how the composer had intended it to sound all along.
Elido frowned and shook his head. He hoped Kelly Ann would never get into that kind of thing.
Eight days later, while Elido and his crew were sitting at the galley table for their nightly dinner, Colleen mentioned that she had an announcement. Shortly into the meal, she stood and cleared her throat. "I've identified our location, " she said simply.
Silence filled the galley.
Elido was the first to break it. "Huh," he grunted, leaning back. "Well? Where're we at?"
Colleen smiled and wiggled her eyebrows. "You won't believe it," she began.
"Aw, crap!" interjected Mac Sturgeon. "You mean to tell me we're on the other side of the Sun from the Earth?!? Hell, I was hoping we'd gone boldly where no one had gone before."
After the laughter had died down and Mac had yielded the floor to the navigator, Colleen continued, struggling to stifle the remnants of her own laughter. Smiling broadly, she said, "No, we're a bit further away from the Sun than that." She reached forward and threw a switch, activating the holodisplay in the center of the table. A red test grid appeared in the air, and then it faded, replaced with tiny pinpoints of light. "The problem was a lot more complicated to solve than I'd thought. I needed to adjust for stellar drift to solve it."
"Huh," grunted Elido, nodding, gesturing his navigator to continue.
"See, we have two problems. The first is that our frame of reference for our three dimensional view of the surrounding Universe has changed." She tapped a few commands into her PDA, and the arrangement of pinpoint light sources shifted away slightly.
"The other problem, though, is more insidious. Imagine we've only traveled one light year. Our frame isn't going to change a whole lot, of course, but the positions of each of the stars in the sky relative to every other star will have drifted by up to one year's worth of stellar motion. Our base reference grid is determined by measuring the locations of the stars as seen from the Solar System. If we move one light year away, the light from all the stars will have taken up to year longer or shorter to reach us. Over that year, each star will have moved slightly relative to the others." She touched a couple more commands, and the points of light grew very slightly larger. "Let me zoom in on one of these guys," she said, "to show you an example of the error ellipsoid due to up to one year difference in light travel time." The view on the holographic display zoomed up to show one of the points of light in more detail as an ellipsoid figure surrounding a smaller point.
The view zoomed back out. "Now then, suppose we're ten light years from Earth. First, the reference frame translates even more." The display shifted slightly. "I should point out that the direction of shift is completely unknown at this point, too. In addition to the translation of the frame, the uncertainty in the relative positions of the reference stars increases." The error ellipsoids grew slightly.
"Huh. In other words," suggested Elido, "not only is our location in the frame changing, and thus our view of the frame, but the actual shape of the frame is changing, too? In an unpredictable way?"
"Yes! Though it's not totally unpredictable, mind you. It's just unknown."
"A great big bloody unknown," muttered Mac.
"That's not the worst of it, though. Suppose we've traveled 100 light years." The display shifted some more, and the ellipsoids grew slightly larger. "We have another serious variable here: We don't know how far we've traveled, and the error in our reference grid is dependent on that distance!"
A few members breathed shallow sighs, some whistling in awe.
Colleen continued. "The toughest part here is actually a bit of human psychology. I subconsciously assumed we hadn't really traveled very far. A few tens of light years at most, maybe on the order of a hundred or so. Nothing more." She threw up her hands. "Of course, there's no reason to think that! We might have traveled thousands of light years just as well as tens."
"Actually," interrupted Noriko Saotome, the Gatedrive engineer, "if I can be so bold: Tannhauser's Fourth Law states rather obscurely that consanguinity between locations separated by large distances in three-dimensional space should be much more common than consanguinity between relatively close neighbors. In other words, we should actually expect to jump thousands of light years, not tens. Um, Carlyle's Corollary to Tannhauser's Fourth Law states this concept a little more clearly."
Colleen frowned. "Really? Shoot. Wish I'd known that. Could have saved the Keldysh computer a few cycles." She shook her head slightly. "Well, as it happens, we've traveled a lot further than one hundred light years. A lot further..." She trailed off, then fiddled with some more controls.
"How much further?" asked Manny.
On the galley's main display, an image of a faint star appeared. It was streaked and fuzzy, hard to make out at all. "I had to integrate the image over about ten minutes just to get it above the noise level," explained the navigator. "Sol's not much of a star by galactic standards, and out here, we're not getting many photons, but that's it. That's Home."
The crew stared at the image silently for a brief eternity, each lost in her or his own thoughts. Elido shook his head slowly in awe. What a sight! Sol, viewed for the first time by human beings outside the Solar System! Home! "How far away is it?" he whispered with reverence.
Colleen sat down, her hands folded on the table. She smacked her lips, then leaned forward to tap the last few commands into her PDA. The holographic display lurched visibly, and the error ellipses ballooned outward. "Well, there's a ninety-five percent chance that we're now seven thousand six hundred eighty-six light years away from Home," she said softly.
"My god!" exclaimed Mac. "Nearly eight thousand light years! In the blink of an eye?!?"
Even Noriko, who was one of the ten leading scientists in the Concordat who understood the physics involved, exclaimed breathlessly. "Woo!"
Elido was stunned. He stared at his home for a long while, then did a quick bit of math. "Huh," he said. "That means the light we're looking at left the Sun around 3000 BCE." He let out a long, low whistle. "Ladies and gentlemen, we're staring at the same Sun that rose to greet some of the earliest civilizations on Earth. In the Solar System we're looking at right now, concepts like 'cities' and 'written language' are still pretty fresh in the minds of most people. Amazing."
They ate the rest of their meal in silence, transfixed by the fuzzy, wavering light from Sol. After the meal, they stayed in the galley well into the Keldysh's artificial night.
"Well, here we are once again," noted Mac Sturgeon. The Keldysh flight deck was filled with the pale white light created by the ghostly, firework-like cascade of secondary particle effects playing off the Tannhauser Discontinuity a few hundred meters in front of the ship.
"Yep," agreed Elido. They had spent a little more than a month in the binary star system while the superconducting batteries that powered the Gatedrive recharged off the fusion power plant. During that time, they'd finally discovered a few cometary bodies that were part of this system's Edgeworth-Kuiper belt. It also had a sparse asteroid belt not unlike Sol's. There wasn't much else in the system, however, not that they could detect during their brief survey, anyway. Mac, Alysin, and Johann had taken the Eagle out to one of the comets to collect some samples; the mission had taken two weeks and Alysin's future success as a geoscientist was guaranteed. They'd also launched a few automated probes inward toward the asteroid belt and left behind a monitoring station to continue the long, slow process of searching the system for planets.
There were plans back home for future missions to this system; those missions would gather the survey data and eventually establish an occupied outpost from which the system would be explored for additional Tannhauser Discontinuities that would hopefully lead to other star systems.
Elido didn't much care about that part of the future. For him, what mattered was that they were going home, and that he'd be able to see his family once again.
The counter reached ZERO, the Gate expanded, and the Keldysh vanished.
Back home, on Earth, Elido Carlomagnes breathed deeply once again the scent of Cassandra's skin, of the lake air, of Kelly's purple shampoo. He lay on his back on the shore of their lake, his head resting on Cassandra's thigh, his arms reaching back and around her waist. Their daughter slept quietly on Elido's belly, her soft snores barely audible, mixed delicately with the sounds of tiny little wavelets lapping at the shore. It was midnight, on a New Moon, not a cloud in the sky, on their estate far away from New San Juan. The sky was a black velvet cloth sack full of diamonds. The Milky Way arced high overhead.
Cassandra rubbed the peach fuzz hair starting to grow through Elido's scalp. He'd have it shaved off in the morning, she knew. Best to play with it now.
After a while, she asked him, "Found it yet?"
Elido grunted. "Nope. Not sure it's even visible from the Earth with the naked eye, even on this night. We were pretty far away, love."
"Hmmmm..." murmured Cassandra. "Can't see your star, huh? I'm starting to wonder if you ever really went there."
Elido glanced at his best friend, alarm on his face. "What--"
She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, laughing. "Silly ape."
He relaxed and squeezed her gently. "Huh."
"I love you."
"I love you, too." He paused, then nodded his head. "Huh. I think that was it."
"I think that was what god said, out there." He waved at the sky. "I think that was the meaning of life."
Cassandra laughed again. "Silly ape."
He paused for a moment.
"That might have been it, too, come to think of it," he said at last.
In the second edition of Life on Terra Nova (1998, Dream Pod 9), the first piloted starship to make use of a Tannhauser Discontinuity to travel across the galaxy is called the HCS Keldysh. Ever wonder what "Keldysh" means?
It turns out that Mstislav Vsevolodovich Keldysh was the President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1969 when United States astronauts Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin made their historic journey to the moon in which Armstrong and Aldrin became the first human beings to touch another world than our own. Keldysh and Administrator Thomas O. Paine of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration made great strides toward getting the United States and the Soviet Union to cooperate in their explorations of space. These two men initiated the programs that would ultimately lead to the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous of 1975.
Neat, huh? To find out more about the Apollo-Soyuz mission and Paine and Keldysh's roles therein, visit NASA's Web pages, especially the portions covering the history of NASA. There are all kinds of things waiting there for you:
While we're talking about names, what about the Eagle and the Intrepid? The Eagle was the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, of course. The Intrepid was Apollo 12's LM. (No, LoTN makes no mention of the names of the shuttlecraft carried by the HCS Keldysh. I made that up.)
|APAGear II Archives||Volume 1, Number 1||December, 1998|
Heavy Gear is © 1998, Dream Pod 9, Inc. All rights reserved. APAGear is not affiliated with Dream Pod 9 in any way. Submitted material remains the property of the creator.