“Attention, please. All Command officers assigned to the Explorer report immediately to the Admiralty conference room for final preflight debriefing. That is all.”
I was sitting in my quarters aboard the space station Bridgehead waiting for this call. Even though I was given command of mankind’s newest starship months ago, it still startled me. Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath to calm myself, I headed out to face my new life.
The Admiralty conference room doubled as a command center and was in the core of the station. It took me ten minutes to get there and I was the last one to arrive. The room had a table that could hold fifty people and the walls themselves were floor-to-ceiling view screens. They showed diagrams and images of the Explorer. Almost all of the seats were filled. I took my place at the right hand of Earth Space Service Admiral Alan Jenkins, my boss.
Jenkins stood up and started speaking. “Ladies and gentlemen, tomorrow you embark on one of the greatest adventures mankind has ever undertaken. I can’t tell you enough how proud I am of you all. Your launch will be the culmination of man’s adventure into space. Your launch marks the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing. From those first steps, through the building of the International Space Station, the
founding of the Moon and Mars colonies, the near-light-speed colony ships that have spread mankind to more than a dozen different stars, and the interstellar FTL courier ships we’ve been using for the past two years, you are the new heralds of humanity.”
I felt proud to be part of this endeavor, and even more proud to be the captain of the ship. I wondered if Jenkins was finished. He stood there, with his eyes glistening. When he spoke again, his voice cracked.
“You don’t know how much I wish I was going with you. But no one needs an old man like me dragging along.”
Everyone chuckled at that comment.
“I just wanted a chance to see you all together one last time and to tell you how much you all have come to mean to me over the past few years. There is just one thing left for some of you. Everybody but the bridge and engineering officers are dismissed. Good luck and Godspeed!”
I watched as almost everyone shuffled out of the room, leaving Admiral Jenkins and me with my first officer, Janet Parks, my second officer, Ham Bishop, my navigator, Tony Kerry, and my chief engineer, Vaughn McKellar.
Jenkins said, “Sorry to spring this on you folks, but the PR department wants one more interview with you all.” He smiled ruefully and reached down to press a button on the arm of his chair.
The view screens changed from pictures of the ship to a group of reporters. All of them started speaking at once. Jenkins called them to order. “Pipe down everybody, I’ll pick the reporter out, and he can ask one question. Those are the ground rules. I’ll call you
out by your company name.” Everyone simmered down. “That’s better,” he said. “First up, Solar News Network.”
A tall, slim blond with an SNN logo pin responded. She had a HoverCam hanging six inches above her left shoulder. “My question is for Captain Fletcher. Sir, how do you feel about being away from the solar system for at least several years?”
I sighed. Having been asked this question many times, I gave the same answer as always. “I’m single and childless. My parents are gone, and I have no siblings. The Space Service has been my family for a long time, so I’m not really leaving anybody behind. I’ll miss Earth, but I signed up to be a space explorer. I won’t have any problems leaving for awhile.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
Jenkins picked the next one. “Inner System Entertainment, you’re up.”
A short round man with gray hair and skin almost as black as space spoke up. He too had a HoverCam at his shoulder. “Admiral Jenkins, what about morale on this trip? What types of problems do you anticipate?”
The admiral snorted. “The ship will house over two thousand people from all walks of life. I’m sure the psych staffers are going to get some good papers out of the trip!” Everyone laughed.
We continued in this vein for about a half-hour. Trying to bring it to a close, the admiral picked one last reporter.
“All right, folks. One more question. Let’s get one of the pool reporters this time. Who’s here from Combine News Service?”
An older gentleman came to the forefront and smiled. “That would be me,” he said, “Jonathon Brown. My question is for Chief Engineer McKellar. Sir, some people think that causing spatial rotation with such powerful engines may cause a catastrophic event that could well destroy the solar system. What do you say to them?”
McKellar looked embarrassed and angry at the same time. “That won’t happen. We’ve been using these rotation engines in the couriers for years. Nothing has gone wrong that could be attributed to them.”
Brown continued: “But what about this ship? It’s the largest we’ve ever built, with engines that are many orders of magnitude more powerful than any other rotation drive ship. What about the solar flare activity, the California Disaster, and other such events? These happenings coincided with testing these particular engines.”
McKellar was getting agitated. “Look, these engines don’t really rotate space. They actually rotate the ship into an unseen dimension and then back out into our normal three dimensions. So space doesn’t get rotated, the ship does.
“But–” Brown started.
The Admiral jumped in. “Thank you Mr. Brown, but that’s all the time we have for questions. Thank you all for your time. Launch will be at eleven hundred hours tomorrow. Good night.” He cut the connection. “Sorry about that. I didn’t expect to run into that at this late date. I thought we had that all covered in the press releases.”
“That’s all right, Admiral,” I said. “We’ll be gone in less than twenty-four hours. But you’ll be stuck with them for years!” That got a laugh out of everyone but McKellar. The Admiral dismissed us and I walked out with McKellar. “Let’s go grab something to eat; we
can stop and look at the ship for a few minutes out of a viewport instead of a screen on the way.” I said.
“Sure thing,” he said.
As we walked to the station promenade, we discussed the last reporter’s question. “What do you think, Vaughn? Are you going to let his question bother you all night?”
“Nope, there’s nothing to it. He just annoyed me. He’s one of the doomsayers that predicted the atomic bomb would set fire to the atmosphere or the Large Hadron Collider at CERN would make a black hole that would swallow the Earth.”
I remembered some of my history from college. “But CERN did create several microscopic black holes.”
“Yeah, but they managed to catch and contain them. And working with them showed us how to build antimatter reactors. So we made progress, not destruction. And the flares and the earthquake and the other situations were just coincidences. They were bound to happen sooner or later!” he said forcefully. “And what we’re about to do won’t affect anything. I’ve been over the whole ship, especially the engines, for the past three years. Nothing will happen unless the engines blow up.”
I said, “But since we’re not going to engage the rotation engines until we’re at the heliopause, the only thing that could happen is we all die with the ship.”
“Gee, that makes me feel better already!”
“She’s a real beauty, Captain Fletcher.”
I just kept looking out of the space station window and said, “That she is, Vaughn, a real beauty.” And it was true. Humanity’s largest faster-than-light ship was an incredible sculpture of metal and plazcrystal. The designers had decided that it would be a cultural as well as a technological statement.
She was four kilometers long from her needle-sharp nose to her rear thruster ports. Her width was one kilometer, with six nacelles placed equidistant around her middle. Each nacelle was two kilometers long and had a set of eight support pylons half a kilometer in length. These nacelles would generate a field that would modify space-time itself and allow her to travel seemingly faster than light. The ship had a brilliant mirror finish, and armored windows and observation bubbles festooned it in a pleasingly symmetric pattern. She would carry a complement of over two thousand specialists of all variety on our maiden voyage. And I was lucky enough to be her captain. My heart swelled with pride over this. After a few minutes of drinking in her beauty, we went off to my favorite restaurant. We had a good dinner and then went back to prepare for final departure.
My palms were sweaty as I sat in the command chair. We were minutes away from launch and I was nervous. This wasn’t my first command by any means, just my biggest. More than two thousand people were now my responsibility. Oh, there were ship arbiters and such; and a town council of a sort actually governed us. But in the final analysis, everything would ultimately rest on my shoulders. My anxiety was reaching its peak, when the station called in.
“Explorer, this is Control. You will be cleared for departure in three minutes. Everyone in the System wishes you good luck and Godspeed! Find some aliens for us!”
I opened the comm and responded with a smile on my face. “Will do, Control, we send our love and promise to find those little gray buggers!” We all watched the countdown clock as the seconds swept away. Everyone was tense. Even though the ship passed all the trial runs, this was for real and with a full complement of crew and passengers. I looked at the clock. It was time for my announcement. “Attention all hands, we will be departing in sixty seconds. Secure all.”
When the clock hit the departure time, I gave the command. “Mr. Kerry, initiate departure sequence.”
“Aye, Captain. Initiating programmed departure sequence. Undocking from station and firing thrusters. Engaging inertial dampers.”
The ship started to rumble as the engines powered up. We were programmed to use only a small fraction of the engines’ power until we cleared Earth’s orbit. Even so, we were clear of the orbital habitats and the Moon in less than an hour.
Kerry said, “Captain, we are clear of habitable areas and on course for the heliopause.”
“Very good, Mr. Kerry, bring engines up to eighty percent and proceed as planned.”
“Aye, Captain, engines throttling up to eighty percent.
The rumble grew deeper as the thrust of the ship’s engines increased. At this rate of acceleration we would reach the heliopause, the actual boundary of the solar system, in about eighteen hours. I sat there for about thirty minutes, listening to the bridge crew go
about their business. Everything was running smoothly. I decided I would let the crew do their job and stood up. “Janet, I’m going for a walk. You have the bridge.”
“Aye, sir, I have the bridge,” she replied.
I left the bridge and took the elevator to the promenade deck. It was like being in a mall. Shops lined both sides of a quarter-kilometer-wide corridor, which had a swath of green lawn running down the middle. Spaced randomly throughout were gazebos, walking trails, park benches, and playgrounds. It had a nice small-town feel to it. It was quiet right now; no shops were open this soon after launch. I just wanted to get some quiet time for myself. I looked up and saw the stars through the roof panels. It was beautiful. I was still excited, but not anxious. This was my domain now, my life and my home for many years to come.
I was finishing a snack in my quarters when I received a call from the bridge. It was Bishop the navigator.
“Captain Fletcher, this is Ham. We are approaching the heliopause. I estimate we will cross the boundary in twenty minutes.”
“Acknowledged, Mr. Bishop, I will be right up.” I left the remains of my meal to be cleaned up by the house bots and returned to the bridge.
“I have the bridge, Mr. Bishop.”
“Aye Captain, you have the bridge.”
Ham left my chair and I took my place. “What’s our distance from the Sun, Mr. Kerry?”
“A bit over 90 AU’s, Captain. We can consider ourselves to be within the heliopause at this point.”
“Thank you.” I commed to engineering. “Mr. McKellar, are the rotation engines online? What is their status?”
“Everything is in the green, Sir. We’re ready to rotate out of our space. We have all ten dimensions identified and parameters for them are loaded into the engine computers. They’ll choose the best dimension and angle of rotation.”
“Good. We’ll initiate the rotation from the bridge. I’ll give you a thirty-second warning when we do. I want to get a little further out. Bridge out.”
I said to the navigator, “Mr. Kerry, let’s get out to 100 AU before we rotate.”
“Aye, Sir. We’ll reach 100 AU in about ninety minutes.”
“Good. Let’s make sure everything is on the green. Check all stations and prepare for rotation operation in ninety minutes.” Everyone went about their appointed tasks. I could sense the bridge crew, along with myself, growing more excited with each passing minute.
The trip to Tau Ceti normally took thirteen years each way. If everything went according to our tests, we should make the trip in three days. I must admit, though, that being squeezed into a dimension so small you need a multitrillion-dollar machine just to detect it scared the hell out of me. At least if something went wrong, we wouldn’t feel a
thing. I hoped! I sat there obsessing on this until I gave myself a headache. About five minutes before the rotation, McKellar called from Engineering.
“Captain, we’re all set down here.”
“Thank you.” I said. It was time for final preparations. “Mr. Kerry, activate ship shield systems.”
“Aye, Sir. Shields activated.”
There were a few seconds of vertigo as the shields formed around the ship. They would protect us from any outside influence while we made our transit. Once things settled down, I made my final announcement.
“Attention all hands. In just about a minute we will take the next step in mankind’s expansion into the galaxy. As we begin our journey, let us reflect and give thanks for all of those who came before us. We have some mighty big shoes to fill, from all of the pioneers since the Vikings, through the first interstellar explorers. May God watch over us all. Now, let’s go make some history!” Everyone on the bridge applauded.
“Mr. Kerry, is everything ready?”
“Yes, Captain, just awaiting your word.”
“Mr. Kerry, the word is given. Activate rotation engines.”
“Aye, Sir, activating rotation engines.”
There was a subtle shift in the engine noise. It went up in pitch until it felt like fingernails on a blackboard. I hoped we wouldn’t have this the whole time we were in transit. All of the outside images on the view screens changed from stars to a shimmer of pastels, roiling on each screen. The ship started to shake and shudder, becoming more
violent with each passing second. If the inertial dampers went out now, we’d be splattered all over the bridge. I looked around at the fear on the faces of the bridge crew. I called Engineering. “Vaughn, what the hell is going on?”
“I don’t know. According to all of the instruments and computer readings, everything is fine. The engines are working. We’ve rotated and are proceeding according to plan. The only thing outside of specs is the amount of power the engines are pulling from the antimatter reactor.”
“How much is being used?”
McKellar sounded worried. “All of it! It’s pulling everything the reactor can generate. It was never supposed to do that.”
“What does that mean? What are the engines doing?”
“I’ve no idea. Maybe it’s because the ship is so much bigger than the prototypes. It’s possible the power needs may be exponential or even logarithmic, instead of geometrical like the smaller ships. Nothing like this ever showed up in any of the simulations or actual testing. But we never actually rotated the ship before.”
By now, the ship was shuddering violently. I was having trouble staying in my chair, as was everybody else on the bridge.
“Vaughn,” I said, “I’m bringing us out of rotation. If this gets much worse, the ship might be damaged.”
”Aye, pull us out whenever you’re ready. Engineering out.”
“Mr. Kerry, disengage rotation engines. Bring us back to normal space.”
“Aye, Captain, returning to normal space.”
Kerry worked his magic and tried to disengage the rotation engines. But something was wrong. “Captain, I can’t take the rotation engines down! They won’t respond to the controls!”
The normally calm navigator was not so calm in his assessment. I was right up there with him as I called McKellar in a panic of my own. “Vaughn, we can’t shut down the rotation engines. You have to do it from Engineering.” The violent motions of the ship continued to grow. At this point, the inertial dampers were starting to have trouble compensating.
“Captain,” McKellar finally answered, sounding scared, “we can’t shut them down from here either! In fact, the engines are drawing so much power we’re starting to lose other systems from the power drain!”
“I know. The inertial dampers are having trouble. Get those engines off-line if you have to use a sledgehammer!”
“Aye, Engineering out.”
We all hung on for dear life. The ship kept rocking violently. After a few more seconds, the bridge went dark and the ship stopped most of its violent shuddering. The power came back up almost immediately. McKellar called from Engineering.
“Captain, we’ve got the engines disengaged.”
“I kind of figured that. Can you tell me anything else?”
“No sir, not yet. I’ll call you when I do. Engineering out.”
Looking at the view screens, I saw that the same pastel imagery was being displayed. That concerned me. We should have popped back into normal space–but first things first.
I questioned my first officer: “Janet, what’s our status ship wide?”
“Mostly broken dishes, from the reports I’m getting. Nobody was injured, just a little nausea from the motion. All ship systems are operating within acceptable parameters.”
“Good. Now, do any of you have any ideas about what just happened? I need to make sure everybody remains calm. I have to tell them something.”
“No idea at all.” This from Ham.
“Nor I,” said Kerry, as he just shook his head.
“Janet? What about you?” I asked.
“I think the only one who can answer that question would be Vaughn or one of the theoreticians on board,” she replied.
“Well, I have to tell the crew something.” I wasn’t looking forward to this, but I hit the comm button and spoke.
“Attention everyone, as you may have noticed, we seem to have hit a rough patch in space. We’ll continue our journey as soon as we figure out what happened. For now, I would like all department heads to report to the main briefing room in fifteen minutes. That is all.”
When I arrived, the briefing room was awash in noisy confrontation. Ten people, including McKellar, were having heated arguments with each other. I took my seat and
called the meeting to order. “Quiet down people, let’s figure this situation out.” I directed my first question to the head of the theoretical physics group. “Dr. Hensel, what the hell just happened? And why aren’t we back in normal space?”
Dr. Thomas Hensel, an older gentleman of medium height and brown hair, leaned back in his chair and said, “Truly, Captain, I don’t have any idea. We rotated into a different dimension as we expected, but the engines kept themselves actively engaged. They should have idled down to maintenance mode when we finished rotating, maintaining a lock on this dimension. That they didn’t respond the way we expected concerns me greatly. As does the fact that when Mr. McKellar took them off-line we should have rotated back to our own dimension, but we didn’t.”
“You’re not alone in that respect.” I asked, “Was there any damage to the engines?”
“None that we found in our initial analysis, but that doesn’t mean the engines will function normally. We are running more intensive diagnostic on all components and should have the final results in a few hours.”
“Good.” I glanced around to the others and asked, “Were there any damages or injuries?” I was answered with a chorus of responses that indicated everyone and everything on the ship checked out. I settled myself a bit more comfortably in my seat and started to take individual questions and concerns from the department heads. It was looking to be a long meeting.
Four hours later, I was back on the bridge looking for something to get rid of a headache. I hadn’t felt this tense in years. There was an emergency medical kit on the bridge, so I popped a couple of pills from it. I went to my first officer, and asked about our status.
Janet turned from the Captain’s Chair and said, “Everything’s nominal, Sir, no changes observed inside or outside the ship. Did anything come of the meeting?”
“Nothing concrete, but everybody’s got the jitters. McKellar is working with Hensel the theoretician on checking and prepping the engines so we can try to rotate back into our normal dimensions. God only knows what will happen.” I relieved Janet and took my chair. I looked out the main view screen and found the swirling pastels to be very restful, hypnotic even. With the painkillers taking effect, I started to drift into a relaxing doze.
Janet’s voice woke me. “Captain, McKellar is on the comm for you.”
I hit the comm button. “Yes, Vaughn, what’s up?”
“We’re ready to test the engines, Captain. We’re going to bring them up to maintenance mode first, and if all goes well we’ll try to rotate back into our space.”
Apparently, I had dozed far longer than I thought. “Very good, Mr. McKellar. Initiate maintenance mode on my countdown.”
“Aye, Engineering out.”
I hit the ship-wide broadcast button and announced, “All hands, prepare for engine restart in sixty seconds. I repeat, engine restart in sixty seconds.” I sat there, becoming more anxious as the seconds ticked off. “Is everybody ready for this?” I asked the bridge crew. I received a chorus of affirmation.
At the ten-second mark, McKellar gave a final countdown. At the zero mark, the engines thrummed to life. The ship shuddered a bit, but the outside picture didn’t change. McKellar called.
“Captain, everything is working according to spec. We’re ready to rotate back into our own space anytime you want.”
“Mr. McKellar, please proceed.”
“Aye, Sir. Initiating rotation now.”
The sound of the engines increased in both volume and timbre. The screen image became blurry; ripples were forming in the pastel colors. The ship started to shudder more violently. Everybody was hanging on to whatever he could to keep balance. The engine noise reached a crescendo, and then dropped back to a gentle murmur. The image of outside the ship was pitch-black–no stars or planets. The outside sensors were reading nonsense. It said the ambient temperature outside the shields was in excess of ten billion degrees and the mass measurements were off the charts.
I hit the comm. “Engineering, what the hell is going on? Where are we?”
McKellar answered. “We’re back where we came from, Captain, our home space.”
“How are the engines?”
“They’re fine. They’re in maintenance mode like they should be.”
“Then where are my stars? And what is it with the external sensors?”
“Stars? What the–I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
“Well you better damn well find out! Bridge out.” I looked around. “Any ideas, folks?”
“You mean besides spacing all the scientists and engineers?” Tony asked.
Ham said, “As long as we get home I don’t care.”
“Janet?” I asked.
“I’m with Ham. I just want to get back home. Who knows where we are and where we’ll end up?”
I sat for a while and thought about our situation.
About twenty minutes later, Janet interrupted me. “Captain, I have Dr. Hensel for you.”
I took the call.
“I need to speak to you privately, Captain. Can I come to the bridge?”
“We have a bit of a situation here, Doctor, can it wait?”
“No, Captain, I’m afraid it can’t. It relates directly to what’s happened.”
I sighed. “Come on up.”
Hensel arrived a few minutes later.
“Doctor, do you have any ideas as to what’s going on?”
“Actually, I do. Can we speak privately?”
I noticed Hensel was nervous. “It’s fine, Doctor. My bridge crew needs to know what’s going on. Now, do you know where we are and how we get home?”
Hensel licked his lips. “Based on what I’m getting from our instruments, I am afraid we are home, Captain.”
“What? Where are the stars? Where are we? Some kind of dead zone in space?” I was starting to feel scared. The rest of the bridge crew had fearful expressions of their faces. I tried to calm down. “Please explain yourself, Doctor. What do you mean we’re home?”
“When we chart out the unseen dimensions, we take readings of the specific quantum signatures of each dimension. This is how we identify which one to rotate into for the best possible speed.”
“And you’re telling me what exactly?”
“Where we are matches the quantum signature of our home space-time.”
“But where are the stars? We couldn’t have gone so far in that short of time that we reached the boundary of the universe could we?”
Hensel looked very uncomfortable. “No. We should be just beyond the Oort Cloud if things were normal.”
“Normal? What aren’t you telling me, Doctor?”
“Well, there appears to have been a problem when we rotated.”
“What kind of problem?”
“We didn’t rotate into another dimension. We actually inflated the dimension we were trying to rotate into.”
“What do you mean inflated?”
“It means that one of the original spatial dimensions of our universe was compactified and replaced by a different one due to the actions of our engines.”
“Compactified? How could the ship cause that?”
“Flying so close to light speed upped our mass several orders of magnitude. We know this happens and can measure it. The rest mass of our ship is over ten thousand times that of the couriers we use. At the speed we were traveling, we had a mass of over a hundred million times that of the couriers. With the increased mass as an anchor and the powerful engines, we actually did rotate space.”
“And when we restarted them and rotated back?”
“We just re-inflated the original dimension back to normal.”
“But where are the stars?”
“They’re not there ye!. Don’t you understand?” He was getting agitated. “When we compactified one of our dimensions we crushed our entire universe down to the size of a quantum fluctuation!”
I was stunned. We had destroyed the entire universe? I couldn’t wrap my head around this. “And so when we rotated back–”
“We basically started the clock over again,” Hensel said. “You are looking out at a brand new universe, just a few minutes after the Big Bang. The energy mass outside is too dense to permit photons to form. Hence, there is no light. There won’t be any light for almost four hundred thousand years.”
“So that quack Brown was right. Then why aren’t we dead? Even with the shields we couldn’t take that kind of environment for more than a few seconds?”
“I think we may be carrying an entropic field from our earlier transitions. We may not be completely in the universe as of yet.”
“So, everyone and everything, Earth, the colonies, they’re all gone?”
“Yes, everything. And not just our solar system. Our entire universe was compressed to a point smaller than the diameter of an electron. When we rotated back, it started the expansion all over again.”
I sat there stunned. That uttered the death knell not only for mankind but for any life in our universe.
I heard Janet start to sob softly. Her husband was on board, but she had left three grown children and their families behind; all of them were gone now. Everyone was gone forever in an instant.
“Is there any way to undo what we just did?” I asked Hensel. “Any way at all?”
“No,” he replied. “And we can never use the rotation engines again, or the same thing will happen. We’ll just crush the universe again. We must take them off-line and disable them completely.”
“Then what do we do? There’s nothing here for us. No stars or planets. We can survive for a few years on the ship. We were meant to be a long-range mission. But after that?”
Hensel seemed to calm down a little bit. “One thing we do have is time. We have our light-speed engines and more than enough fuel. If we get a very high time-dilation factor, say twenty or twenty-five nines of light or better, we can jump forward millions of years for every year of ship time. By then the first stars and planets will be forming and we can mine them or even colonize them if we can find a good one. We can start all over again.”
I felt a chill run down my spine. This was every spacer’s nightmare. The “Adam and Eve” syndrome writ larger than anyone could have thought. I was no longer captain of a starship; I was the leader of the human race. I looked at the stricken faces of my fellow crewmen. I hit the comm button. “Will Mr. McKellar please report to the bridge immediately?” I needed Vaughn’s level head at this time. I had a future to build.
“Janet, please get the ship up to maximum acceleration. We need to chase light speed as close as we can.”
“Aye, Captain, maximum acceleration it is.” Janet’s voice broke, but her actions were sure.
I knew what I had to do next. The good news was that we were back in our home space; the bad news was that the trip was going to take a lot longer than we had thought–several million years longer, at least. I hit the ship-wide comm, prepared to make the announcement I dreaded making.