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Denizens: 17 - Space

...A few days later the Hermes crossed the orbits of Neptune, then Pluto, and they left the solar system, headed into deep space. They were, finally, going “where no one had gone before”...

The Hermes continues to accelerate, faster, ever faster, nearing the speed of light.

...For the moment, now that there was nothing to do but wait for the big event, all they could do was get as much rest as they could and wait out the last few hours. One way or another, they were about to find out if the barrier existed. And if it did, whether anything or anyone could pass through it...

Brian William Neal's dazzling sci-fi novel takes you to places where your imagination has never been before. To read earlier chapters please click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

The outer planets
April, 2033 (relative)

Seven days into the journey, the Earth was, as Jonathan had warned, just another point of light in the firmament, although he had made sure each of them could find it whenever they wished. Their velocity had increased to almost twenty million miles per hour, and they were about to cross the orbit of the third to last planet in the solar system, the gas giant Uranus.

Unfortunately, their path took them nowhere near the planet itself, so they would have no sighting of the “upside down world”, whose five moons revolved around it on an orbit perpendicular to the plane of the system. They had, however, passed very close to the two previous planets, Jupiter and Saturn, and had been kept busy taking sightings and filming and photographing the giants as they flashed by, all too quickly. They were the first humans to see this part of the solar system; previously, only unmanned probes had ventured out this far.

The ship had passed through the asteroid belt on a precisely determined course, and they had exchanged greetings with some of the mining ships working there. The captains of those vessels had been warned to expect the Hermes, and while they had not been told the nature of its mission, they had been advised of its priority.

Once through the belt, without even seeing an asteroid, much less coming close to one, the ship had sped towards the giants, accelerating all the time at one point five gee. Jupiter had loomed first, its banded image visible in the view screens, coming closer by the hour. No craft had ever traveled at even a fraction of the velocity they had so far reached, and the interplanetary distances were being devoured at an incredible rate.

They passed the system’s largest planet and its fourteen known moons, then sped on towards the next. After only slightly more than a day, the most beautiful sight in the solar system came within range of their screens. Bill was all for altering their course to take them between Saturn’s rings and the planet itself, saying that their enormous velocity would prevent them from being captured by the planet’s massive gravity.

To Karen’s surprise, Jonathan agreed. They were, he confirmed, traveling at far in excess of the twenty-three miles per second needed to escape Saturn’s gravity. After some consideration, Cal vetoed the idea as an unnecessary risk; none of them knew exactly how far the rings extended towards the planet’s surface, or what they might encounter there.

Bill and Jonathan bemoaned the decision, but Karen was secretly relieved. Fly between Saturn’s rings? Jesus! What kind of cowboys were they? And what the hell had she let herself in for? She found herself thanking Cal’s prudence, although she was careful not to let him know.

*

Traveling at one point five gee meant more than had at first been apparent, they soon discovered. Suddenly finding yourself weighing, as in Karen’s case, not one hundred and twenty pounds, but one hundred and eighty made moving around, walking or even just standing for any length of time extremely fatiguing. Consequently, they spent as much time as possible on their individual gel-filled acceleration couches.

Karen monitored the crew’s personal medical telemetry, as part of her duties as ship’s doctor. For herself, she found the increased gravity difficult, but only moderately so; she was in fairly good shape, despite the cigarettes, and had kept herself in trim.

Two of the men were in as good, or better, shape than her. Bill, while slightly overweight, was nevertheless reasonably fit, and although the gee forces had him weighing over three hundred pounds, he was very strong, and was handling it reasonably well. Cal, for his part, was very fit, due to his martial arts training and his lifestyle of outdoor pursuits, and was experiencing little discomfort.

The fourth member of the crew, however, presented Karen with some very real problems. Jonathan never complained; he worked, if anything, even harder and longer than the others did, but Karen was worried by his frailty. Once or twice, when he had thought himself unobserved, Karen had seen his pain manifest itself on his face and in his movements.

She had taken her concerns to Cal who, as mission commander, could order a change in procedure if he thought it justified. However, he was not at first confident that he could do much to help the quiet Englishman they were all coming to admire and respect.

“What do you want me to do, Karen?” he had asked. “Go to Jonathan and tell him I’m slowing the ship and thereby extending the mission just for his benefit? I think you know what he’d say to that.”

“I’ll take responsibility. You can tell him it’s a medical decision.”

“Have you found anything wrong with him that would constitute a medical emergency, something that would justify a reduction in acceleration?”

Karen chewed her lip. “Well, no, but…”

Cal shook his head. “Karen, your authority to override me only applies in cases of extreme crisis, or when the health of any of us is in danger. Are you telling me that this is the case?”

“Well, there was a little heart flutter yesterday…”

Cal interrupted. “Karen, that’s the sort of bullshit that got me canned from the space program! Jonathan’s the science officer. If I slow the ship, he’s going to want to know why. Now, he just happens to be the possessor of one of the most brilliant minds of the last century or so and, contrary to popular opinion regarding geniuses, he is also one very sharp cookie. He’ll catch on to what we’re up to, no matter what excuse we give. And, as science officer, he’ll insist we get the ship back up to optimum speed.” Cal spread his hands helplessly. “As mission commander, and failing any medical advice to the contrary, I’d be derelict in my duty if I didn’t follow his recommendation.”

“Damn his recommendation!” Karen burst out angrily. “And damn your duty, too! I’m talking about the health, and maybe even the life, of that dear, sweet man.” She subsided quickly, embarrassed by her outburst.

Cal nodded solemnly. “I’m not insensitive to what’s happening here, Karen. Tell you what, I’ll have a little talk with him, tell him we’re all finding the acceleration hard to take, see what he says.”

Neither could think of a better idea, so together with Bill they presented their proposal to Jonathan. To their surprise, he agreed without hesitation, and the ship’s acceleration was slowed to one point two five gee, adding about six weeks to the mission. Everyone felt a lot better for losing one-sixth of their body weight, but Karen still kept an unobtrusive eye on the Englishman. Although she observed no further signs of distress, either outwardly or in the weekly medical examinations, she could not shake the feeling that some damage might have already been done.

A few days later the Hermes crossed the orbits of Neptune, then Pluto, and they left the solar system, headed into deep space. They were, finally, going “where no one had gone before”.

*

During the next forty-five weeks of the journey, the crew settled into a routine of star sightings, ship maintenance and carrying out their scientific duties. These consisted of sightings, calculations, taking photographs and experiments that had been set before they had left earth. Jonathan appeared to show no further signs of any ill-effects caused by the acceleration, but Karen continued to monitor him, as she did all of them. The magnetic field that surrounded the ship continued to function without mishap, warding off the small particles that filled the space through which they were rushing at ever-increasingly mind-boggling velocities. The digital readout had long since changed over to miles per second, and the counter was creeping ever closer to the fabled figure of one hundred and eighty-six thousand. During one of Bill’s regular monitoring sessions, Karen assisting, she asked a question that she felt had not been answered clearly.

“Could someone please explain again just how we intend to stop this shooting star?”

From his position at the pilot’s station, Cal said, “We’re not going to stop it, not out here. We’ll use the attitude thrusters, Karen. They’ll turn us, allow us to change our course so we can retrace our original path. It’s all programmed into the computer. We just turn around and retrace our outward course, and go home, tail first, decelerating all the way.”

Karen thought about this for a moment. “So every detail of the mission is controlled by the ship’s computer?”

“That’s right.”

“What happens if something goes wrong with the computer?”

“Then we rely on astrogation to get us home.” Cal went on quickly, to cover her next objection. “And if something happens to Jonathan, I’m his backup. I’ve got a rudimentary grasp of the subject; enough to find Earth, anyway. Bill can fly the ship, if he has to. You are his backup in the engineering department, and we’ve all had a course in basic first aid. So we’re covered as best we can be.”
There was silence for a moment, then Karen asked, “What about light speed? What if we really reach it? Can we reach it? Is there a barrier, or what?”

They all looked at Jonathan, who smiled and shook his head. “I don’t know. But I’m really looking forward to finding out.”

They were silent for a moment, then they all went back to their tasks. For a short time, Karen continued to worry about their tenuous position. What if the engines failed? How would they get home then?

Finally, seeing no answer to these and other questions, and no way to get them short of the actual experience, she sensibly stopped asking them, and settled back into the routine of the ship.

*

Jonathan looked at the engineer. “What do you believe, Bill?” he asked gently. “If you don’t mind me asking.”

O’Rourke stared into his beer for a long pause before replying, watching the bubbles rising through the amber liquid. The four were relaxing in Bill’s quarters one evening, several months into their journey.

They had taken to having these impromptu sessions, alternating between cabins, and the discussion, as on this occasion, sometimes got quite philosophical.

“Well,” he said at last, “I wasn’t much of a believer of anything in particular. I just kind of went with the flow, y’know? But after I lost Kathy and the baby…well, I began to have serious doubts as to the existence of any kind of point to it all.”

He paused again, then went on. “Back in the nineteen seventies, there was a folk-come-country singer with the unlikely name of John Denver.” He grinned at them, self-consciously. “Real name was Dutchendorf, if you can believe it. Anyway, he wrote some really pretty songs, all about love and peace and finding happiness, all that shit. I particularly remember one called ‘Poems, Prayers and Promises’. It had a line in it about how he felt turned on at the thought of growing old.

“Well, I’ll tell you this for free, pilgrims: it doesn’t turn me on, it frightens the living shit out of me, pardon my French. After Kathy, I thought I wasn’t afraid of anything. I mean, fate had really dealt me the old double whammy, y’know? I was seriously into ‘do your worst’ territory. But, after a while, I realized there were other things even worse than the loss of the one you love, worse than…” Bill hung his head, then looked up and continued.

“Because, when you get right down to it, we still have to go on. Like The Eagles said, ‘We who must remain’, etc. And my personal demon is just that: old age. The thought of gradually losing my faculties; my eyesight, hearing, not being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…or even trot up a short flight of stairs without pausing for breath, no matter how fit I might keep myself. Knowing that all I am doing is, at best, staving off the day when it all breaks down, when I finally have to face the fact that I’m not, as Paul said, the man I used to be.”

Bill raised his head and looked directly at Jonathan. “That’s what frightens me, Prof. Not much else. I’ll go into the haunted house, be the first one through the door, even though I know there’s a guy with a shotgun behind it, whatever. But the idea of slowly degenerating into a drooling, wrinkled infant whose every basic need has to be cared for by someone else is…” Bill looked at them all, then hung his head again, as was silent.

“What happened to that singer, Bill?” asked Jonathan. “Denver, was that his name?”

Bill smiled without humor. “Well, he didn’t get to be turned on by growing old. Took a nosedive into the Pacific in a small ’plane at the age of fifty or so.”

One morning after breakfast (they still used earth time), more than ten months out from earth, Cal casually drew the others’ attention to the digital counter. They had, in fact, all been watching it closely over the last few weeks, but they all looked up from their tasks at his call.

“You might have noticed that our velocity has crept very close to the magic number. Jonathan has been making some more precise calculations, and I believe he has something to tell us.”

The English physicist brought his chair closer to the others. “Well,” he said, “according to my reckoning, we should pass the speed of light, if indeed it can be even attained, let alone passed, in about thirty-four hours, give or take. Although we have no idea what is going to happen at that time, I would suggest we prepare ourselves as best we can. I mean, it’s amazing enough that we’ve come this close to light speed; most earthly theories said even this could not be done. Whether we will be able to go much faster or not remains to be seen. But we ought to be ready.”

Cal nodded. “I agree. To that end, as of this moment, all experiments that can be finished within twenty-four hours can continue. Those that can’t, pack them up now.”

The others began to protest, and Cal said, “Come on, folks, let’s do it. You know it makes sense.”

Grumbling, the others began to comply. Karen reflected that she actually admired the easy way Cal had of getting others to follow his orders. Although his instructions were not phrased like orders, and none of them were military personnel, they all recognized that he was in command. This was, she knew, the mark of a born leader, and she found herself thinking of him in those, and other, terms. She had fought against her attraction to him from the start, but still found herself sneaking glances at him from time to time. She had resisted it for more than a year now, but she knew the attraction was growing.

She, like the others, had spent the last ten months in a routine of work and sleep; sometimes, alone in her quarters, she had wondered whether Cal thought of her in any way other than a fellow crew member. The mission had been long and wearying; now that they were approaching its raison d’être, she found her enthusiasm returning.

In truth though, none of them was sorry to be nearing the end of the first stage, and winding up the scientific section of the mission. Bill announced that the engines were running beautifully, still accelerating at one point two-five gee. Fuel was good; the amazing fusion process that converted the hydrogen in the water to burnable fuel, while channeling the oxygen to the life support system continued to function without mishap, and all was running smoothly.

There was also plenty of free hydrogen all around them for the ship’s scoops, and he foresaw no problems there; they would continue to perform right up to and past the barrier. The moment they had all been waiting for was at hand, and they were about to discover something that hitherto had only been the subject of speculation. The real show was about to begin.

*

Now, (Jonathan explained) they were traveling at 99.5% of the speed of light; this meant that time outside the ship was passing at a rate ten times that of time inside. Soon, they would reach 99.9%, when exterior temporal activity would outstrip interior time one hundred fold.

“As we approach light speed,” he said, “time outside the ship speeds up. Or, if you like, time inside slows down, although we do not notice any difference, and everything appears normal to us.”

They were at their stations, and would remain there until they passed light speed, if indeed they did. Bill asked about the effect of relativity, and what it would mean to them. “I’m still not clear on this,” he said. “You’ve told us that when we return to earth, nothing will have changed, that we won’t find ourselves years into the future.”

“That’s correct, at least as far as we know,” said Jonathan. They had had this conversation several times during the voyage, but the others, like most people, still found it difficult to grasp the basics of such an abstract as time.

Fortunately, they had the best teacher in the world; no one since the great Stephen Hawking had understood time and relativity as well as Jonathan, and the former Professor of Astrophysics from Oxford explained patiently.

“If our journey were to last twenty years at 99.5% of light speed, then when we returned, approximately two hundred and seventy years would have passed on earth. A journey of just ten more years, thirty in all, would see more than three thousand years go by in normal space. After a certain point, it seems the longer we travel, the faster time passes outside our perspective, in a geometrical progression. Of course,” he added, smiling excitedly, “these figures are for a body traveling at or just under the speed of light. We, however, are going to attempt to exceed it. What will happen if we are successful, no one knows.”

Karen smiled. “Not even you, Jonathan?”

The Englishman blushed. “Goodness, no. Certainly not me.” Then he went on. “What I can tell you is this: our short journey to date has seen about an extra month passing on earth while we’ve been away. What happens once we go faster than light, however, I have no idea.”

*

The Hermes had been in radio contact with earth for much of the time since their departure, and they had been sending back regular reports, even though their ever-increasing speed meant that the signals were taking longer and longer to complete the round-trip. Now, as they approached light speed, they were traveling virtually as fast as the signals themselves, and the messages had been curtailed until after they passed the light barrier, as they had all come to think of it.

For the moment, now that there was nothing to do but wait for the big event, all they could do was get as much rest as they could and wait out the last few hours. One way or another, they were about to find out if the barrier existed. And if it did, whether anything or anyone could pass through it.

***


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