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Denizens: 19 - Lightspeed

On the most epic space journey ever undertaken by man, lightspeed is achieved. And then... "The others all turned to look at Karen, who had been quiet until now. She was staring at the shapes, which had penetrated the bridge and were now floating all around them...''

Depend on the thrilling words of gifted story teller Brian William Neal to take you into a new dimension.

To read earlier chapters of Brian's epic novel please click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

Deep space
February, 2034 (relative)

“What’s the reading now, professor?” Cal called over his shoulder, his attention fixed firmly on the instruments before him. Jonathan glanced up and saw that they were within a few thousand kilometers per second of light speed, and closing rapidly. Before he could reply, Karen cried out in alarm.

“Look! Look at the walls!”

The four astronauts stared in fear and wonder at the bulkheads of the ship around them. The hull of their vessel was becoming transparent, and they could now clearly see the stars through it. But they were not the stars they knew. These stars were becoming elongated, the familiar points of light being formed by the effect into shining bars parallel to the ship.

As the seconds ticked away, counting down to the mystical number that denoted the speed of light, there was silence inside the ship, and the tension continued to mount. The hull of the Hermes was now almost completely translucent, creating the illusion that they were traveling free in space, without a ship at all.

Then, as they watched, the counter clicked over to the figure they had been approaching ever since they had left earth. There was a moment when nothing happened; then they felt a strange sensation, as if they were suspended in time and space. The bright lines formed by the stars blurred together, and a blinding white light suffused the ship, blotting out all observation. How long it lasted, none of them could afterwards be certain. Opinions differed; a few seconds, perhaps as much as a minute. But they were all agreed on what they saw next.

When at last the light faded, they observed shadowy movements within the remainder of its glow, vague and indistinct, but definitely there. The hull of the ship was solid again, and the forward screens showed that they were inside a silvery-gray space, and the familiar blackness of their own space had disappeared.

Cal looked across at the engineer’s chair; Bill seemed to be moving as if in a dream, his manner languid, and all about them was the light. It was softer now, and they could again make out the ethereal phantoms they had seen before. They were incorporeal shapes, their gossamer flimsiness indefinable and ever-changing, yet at the same time very much there. Jonathan said as much, and concluded, “This is very odd, indeed. I must confess I am at a loss to explain it.”

“This is where they live.”

The others all turned to look at Karen, who had been quiet until now. She was staring at the shapes, which had penetrated the bridge and were now floating all around them.

Cal motioned the others to silence, and said, “Where who live, Karen? Who, or what, are they?”

Karen was silent for a moment, her eyes closed, then she said, “They don’t have a name. They just are.”

Jonathan looked at the vaporous non-shapes, then back at Karen. “Are you able to talk to them?”

Karen shook her head lightly. “Not talk, exactly. Just ideas, notions, images. I guess they needed someone to communicate through, and they chose me.” A pause, then, “They’ve been here a very long time, almost as long as the galaxy is old. This is their home.”

Bill shook himself out of his open-mouthed stupor. “Where exactly is ‘here’, Karen? Where the hell are we?”

Karen went blank again for a moment. “It’s another dimension, just like Jonathan said. The nearest concept we have of it is hyper space.”

Beside her, Jonathan was almost leaping out of his wheelchair in his excitement. “Are we doing them any harm by passing through their home?” he asked.

Karen replied immediately. “No. To them, we are barely moving. When we passed light speed, we just appeared in their dimension. We are as insubstantial to them as they are to us. Like ghosts, if you like.”

She concentrated for a moment. “They want to know what we are. They have theorized about our existence, just as we have theorized about hyper space. How should I answer?”

The others looked at Cal, who shrugged. “Hell, I don’t know. Tell them the truth, I guess. I don’t think it’s a good idea to start off first contact with an alien race by lying to them.”

Karen closed her eyes for a moment, then said, “Oh, wow, that was weird. They just took the information they needed from my mind. They could have done it any time they wanted, but they needed my permission first. It seems to be some kind of ethical code they have.”

Bill smiled cynically. “Makes you wonder if humans would be so honorable if we had this ability, doesn’t it?”

As suddenly as they had appeared, the shapes began to fade. Jonathan cried out, “Quick, Karen, ask them where they came from! Ask them…”

But it was too late. The strange shapes were gone, and only the light remained. Then they noticed it was getting stronger again.

“We’re losing power, we’re slowing down!” cried Bill.

“Are you sure?” said Cal. “There’s no sensation of deceleration, no gee force.”

“Damn right I’m sure,” replied the engineer. “Don’t ask me how, just look at the counter!”

They all followed Bill’s pointing finger. When they had passed light speed, the readout had returned to zero; now, it was beginning to climb again, and at a much faster rate than before.

“We’re coming back to light speed!” called Cal. “We’re definitely slowing down!”

They all watched as the counter moved back to light speed, and the light in the ship continued to grow in intensity. When they reached one hundred and eighty-six thousand m.p.s, there was the same flash, the same moment of time suspended, and they were back in normal space again, the bars resolving rapidly into stars. Cal quickly began issuing instructions.

“First things first, people. Professor, find out where we are. Karen, do what you can to monitor our physical telemetry, see if any of us suffered any ill effects. Bill, what caused the forward thrusters to fire?”

Bill was staring at his panel. “You got me, hoss. Everything’s fine now, functioning normally. Thrusters are off, velocity is 96% of light speed, and the engines are powering us at one point two five gee.”

They spent the next fifteen minutes checking the system, while Karen studied the medical readouts and Jonathan plotted their position. Finally, Cal sat back in his chair. “OK. I hope you two have found out more than we have. Karen?”

The ship’s doctor shrugged. “Nothing out of the ordinary, Cal. Everyone’s functioning normally, no damage done as far as I can see.”

Cal nodded. “Sounds good so far. Professor, where are we?”

Jonathan looked up from his computer screen, his thin face flushed with excitement. “Well, you’ll all be pleased to know we are still in our own galaxy,” he smiled. “But you had better brace yourselves for a bit of a shock.” He paused dramatically, then went on.

“Well, to put it as succinctly as possible, I have determined, through star sightings and comparison with the star charts that we have, that we are approximately seven billion miles from the binary star system of Sirius A and B.”

There was a stunned silence on the bridge, then Cal said, “That’s impossible, professor. That system is, what…? Eight, nine light years from earth?”

“In round figures, about eight point seven, actually,” Jonathan replied cheerfully.

Cal stared at him for a moment, then said, “Are you telling me that we have traveled almost nine light years in…” he looked at the chronometer on the wall, then checked the figures on his panel. “We only exceeded light speed for about twenty minutes! How could we have come so far?”

Jonathan steepled his fingers and leaned back in his chair, smiling like a child whose birthdays have all come at once. “Twenty one minutes and seventeen point five seconds, to be more or less precise. And, taking into account the fact that we had already traveled about a light year at sub-light speeds, it is more like seven point…”

“All right, Jonathan,” said Cal, exasperated. “I’ll take your word for it. Now, do you have any explanation as to how this happened?”

Jonathan blinked owlishly behind his spectacles. “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I do have a theory.”

Cal forced himself to wait patiently, and the Englishman continued. “As you are no doubt aware, science-fiction writers have written for years about the so-called ‘space drive’, a propulsion system that would make interstellar travel possible. Popular thinking had it that such a system would take the form of an anti-gravity device, since most scientists thought FTL travel was impossible.”

Karen broke in, a puzzled expression on her face. “Excuse me, Jonathan. What kind of travel?”

Jonathan blinked. “FTL. Faster-than-light.” He poured a glass of water from a carafe on the console and continued.

“However, there were a few, my humble self included,” Jonathan smiled self- deprecatingly, “who were at least prepared to consider other possibilities. We theorized that if it were possible to exceed the speed of light, then certain things might happen.” He closed his eyes for a moment, and took a deep breath. “I believe we, my colleagues and I, have been vindicated by this turn of events.”

At this point, Bill interrupted. “Can we just cut to the chase, professor? What’s the bottom line?”

Jonathan turned his sunny smile on the big man. “The bottom line, as you put it, Bill, is that Einstein was right, all the way. You see, as we approached lightspeed, time outside our sphere of influence slowed. We were unable to travel at the speed of light, since that would necessitate time standing still, which is an anomaly the physical universe simply will not permit.

“We were therefore propelled past light speed into a state of existence that was always suspected, but hitherto only theorized about: hyperspace. The science fiction writers I mentioned, brilliant people like Clarke and Heinlein and Asimov, claimed it actually existed, often to widespread ridicule. If we ever get home, I suspect there are going to be more than a few red faces in the scientific community.”

Jonathan paused to chuckle at this happy prospect, and Cal said, “Wait a minute, what do you mean, if we get home?” Before Jonathan could reply, Cal hurried on. “O.K., I know we’ve come a hell of a long way, but surely all we have to do is reverse our course, pass light speed again for the same length of time, and we’ll be home again. Right?”

The Englishman thought for a moment, then said, “To be perfectly frank, Cal, I’m not certain. I have some suspicions, half-formed theories and such, but I wouldn’t like to speculate without more data.”

They were silent for a moment, then Bill said, “Well, that’s great, professor. You go right ahead and theorize all you like. Meanwhile, pilgrims, I say the only way to find out for sure is to turn this bucket around and head for home. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I could use a couple of Big Macs. With fries.”

Cal and Karen seconded the idea, and Jonathan spoke quietly from the science station.

“Before we do that, I believe we ought to give some thought to the opportunity we would be passing up by returning home immediately.”

The others looked at him inquiringly, and he went on. “You might have noticed that our velocity has dropped only a few percent below the speed of light, and we can easily increase it again to pass back through the barrier. Seven billion miles is not far, not at this speed.” He paused again, then said, “I think we might at least take a look at the Dog Star whilst we are in the neighborhood, so to speak. Don’t you?”

There was silence on the bridge for a moment, then Cal said, “What the hell, why not? I mean, there it is, just across the way, relatively speaking. We’ll be the first humans to visit another star system; who knows what we might find? I vote yes.”

Bill nodded. “Me, too.”

They all looked at Karen, who hesitated, then said, “Oh, all right, I’ll make it unanimous. But I wish we knew a little more about what we might be getting into.”

Bill, who had been calculating engine efficiency and fuel reserves, looked up from his panel. “Lady’s got a point, Cal. What do we know about Sirius, anyway?”

Cal and the others looked to Jonathan, who cleared his throat before answering. “Well, er, for one thing, Sirius isn’t one star, it’s two. What is called a binary system. As you are no doubt aware, Sirius A is the brightest star in the night sky at home. It is a blue-white star approximately twenty-three times brighter than our sun…” here Cal whistled… “and it is accompanied by a white dwarf of lesser luminosity, Sirius B.”

Cal interrupted. “Is such a system likely to have any planets orbiting it?”

Jonathan shrugged. “Who knows? Anything is possible, but I would have to say it’s unlikely. The conflicting gravitational forces produced by two stars in such close proximity would probably tear any planets apart, or stop them from even forming in the first place.”

They fell silent, and Karen asked, “Why is it called the Dog Star, Jonathan?”

Jonathan smiled. “Because of its location, in the constellation of the Greater Dog, Canis Major. It rises in Earth’s northern sky just before dawn, during the summer months. Hence the expression, ‘Dog Days’. The ancient Egyptians called it Sothis, and believed its helical rising was responsible for the flooding of the Nile that sometimes accompanied it.”

After a few moments, they began preparing for the relatively short journey, with Jonathan giving them the occasional piece of information as it occurred to him. Then Bill announced that he had completed his calculations, and they began the unscheduled departure from their mission. Cal fed Jonathan’s course into the computer, and the Hermes set forth, the first starship, on its way to the stars.

*

Seventy-two hours later, the Hermes sped towards the binary system, now less than a billion miles distant. They had been taking sightings for most of the journey, and now both stars were visible as fiery balls to the naked eye, although not directly, since the Dog Star was far too bright to view without some kind of shielding.

They were now almost as close as they could get to the stars, particularly Sirius A. Not only was it many times brighter than the sun, it also radiated a corresponding amount of heat. They fired the ship’s attitude thrusters and took it in a wide arc around the system, giving themselves what Bill called the grand tour.

They saw the giant star’s white dwarf companion, Sirius B, separated from its larger mate by more than one and a half billion miles. It was small and, as Jonathan informed them, extremely dense, and its surface temperature was also far hotter than that of the sun.

Cal had ordered the engines cut to idle, giving them a respite from the acceleration, and they all reveled in the zero-gee environment, Jonathan especially. Coasting through the system would not take them much longer than if they were accelerating, and Bill could conduct routine maintenance checks on the engines. One thing they could not do, much to Jonathan’s disappointment, was slow down enough to observe and explore the system. To do so, and then to get back up to light speed later, would take far too long; unless they found life, or at least an earthlike planet, they would have to be content with this whistle-stop visit. Even so, it would be several days before they would leave the Sirius system.

Far less an earthlike world, they found no planets at all orbiting the giant or the dwarf. Despite Jonathan’s warning that the gravitational forces exerted by the two stars were almost certainly too powerful to allow planets to form, much less exist, it was still a disappointment.

Their speed took them around the stars’ zone of influence in only a few days; finally, they made the decision to move away, and left the double star behind. They hadn’t found any planets, or Jonathan’s alien civilization, but they had seen things no other human being had ever seen. The view from close up was far better than through the best telescope, and the ship’s computers were crammed with data from their observations.

Jonathan calculated the course that would send them in the direction of their solar system, and laid it into the computer. When deployed, the attitude thrusters would align the ship, and they would fire up the engines and increase their velocity at one point two five gee until they passed light speed again.

With precise calculations, they should return to the point where they first went through the barrier; then, they would turn over and decelerate back to their own system, and to earth. It meant they were going to spend another ten months in space, but it didn’t matter. In a positive mood, they gave their attention to their tasks. They were going home.

***

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