Carter first got the impression something was wrong when he awoke. There was something flashing in the background, smudging the edge of his vision. Bleary-eyed, he sat up. He had fallen asleep on a random bunk; something he had started doing now that he was on his own. As the moment of surreal half-reality passed and he regained some sort of consciousness, he pulled out the keypad from the bedside and tapped keys. There was a message for him on the flight recorder. It wasn’t specifically addressed to him, in fact, but this was his ship, and now it was his mission, so whatever the message was, it would be his message.
Like the private message from Harvey, the message was in the form of a voice command. He selected it and hit Return on the keypad. It was as he did this that he got the impression that something might have been wrong. Something had disturbed his rest, something other than the flashing light. What was it?
“Initiate Code 201459C sending. This is Houston, F54 Royal Ascender, this is Houston. It is urgent that you comply with this message as soon as you receive it. Our satellites are detecting increased gravitational readings from the radius of the tear. Repeat, we are receiving increasing gravity from the tear. The pull has increased significantly, to the point where our previous co-ordinates are now unsafe. Please input coordinates as displayed on the flight recorder print-out as soon as possible. This is not a drill. Original tear radius unsafe. This is not a drill. End of transmission.”
Carter thought about this for a moment, before smiling faintly, and replacing the keypad. He then lay back, hands beneath his head, and stared at the ceiling.
His watch indicated that they were now a mere week from the tear. The last seven days had passed like syrup; silkily, fluidly running into each other, and yet each hour passed slowly, as if putting off the inevitable. He had tried to stick to his regime; the eight o’clock rise, breakfast in the cafeteria, duties, procedure, checking the flight recorder and engine systems, reading, dinner and bed, but he found it difficult now that there was no-one present to enforce it. He had once looked into the face of Herman, pale and dainty still, and tried to imagine her reprimanding his slack behaviour, but he found this difficult. What was the point in him sticking to his motivational routine? The chances were that he would be dead in a week. All he had left to do was the steer his ship into the light, remembering beforehand to relay all his poetry back to Houston, and then everything would be decided for him. He was approaching the time where his death was inevitable, and therefore simple, so he may as well enjoy some sloth while he still could. Carter continued to stare at the ceiling.
There came a jolt from below. It seemed to start as a vibration, perhaps as the kinetic energy travelled up through the various levels of the Royal Ascender, before rocking the dorm in which Carter lay. He was so surprised that he almost fell off the bunk. In an instant, he jumped to his feet. There were a number of dull, mechanical clunks from below, and then the eternal hum resumed. Used as he was to the smooth runners of the ship, Carter began to feel anxious, something he hadn’t felt in a very long time. It would be so typical for the damn thing to break apart before he had even reached his destiny. A complete and utter waste of two years patience. He listened intently, but there were no more noises. Making a snap decision, he pulled on a jumper over his overalls and left the dorm.
He headed for the cockpit; it being his impression of the centre of the ship. All engine controls and management settings could be accessed there, including their speed and trajectory. Carter picked up his headset and spoke into it.
“Computer; engine status.”
“Engine status normal.”
“Atmosphere stable. Craft approaching area of unstable gravitational pressure. Recommend entering new coordinates for safe continuation of the mission.”
Carter twirled a finger, tousling his hair thoughtfully. Surely this ship, the greatest ever designed by mankind, could hold up under a little gravity change?
“Worst case scenario of continuing under current coordinates.”
“Hull-breach, contamination and failure of all life support systems.”
Deciding he wouldn’t have much use for those anyway, Carter left things as they were. He got frustrated working with computers at the best of times, and now in his time of relaxation and preparation for the end, they were the last thing he wanted to use. Instead he headed for the engine bay, taking the central elevator down through the Royal Ascender, and entered the bay a few minutes later through the large, yellow doors. He heard more clunks of machinery in the distance. It were as if someone was trying to unscrew a bolt with a socket-wrench, but kept slipping and banging metal against metal.
Then there was another jolt, more violent at this level than in the dorms. Above him a red light flashed for a few seconds and then stopped. Carter approached the main computer and examined the readout on the screen. There were no internal problems in the engine system, as far as he could see, but something exterior was causing the disturbance. It showed up on the screen as a red line flashing around the diagram of the bay. Carter grabbed at the screen as he was rocked once more, steadying himself against the turbulence. Once more, the red light flashed. He decided to return again to the cockpit.
When he got there, he found a new display on the flight deck computer. It too had picked up the exterior disturbance. Could someone, or something, outside the craft be trying to get his attention? He put on the headset once more.
“Computer; bring up cross-section of the craft and its current surroundings.”
On the screen in front of him popped up a black and white horizontal model of the Royal Ascender. There was no sign of any objects; asteroids or particles, anywhere in their flight path. Even if there had been, the computers were designed to automatically navigate the ship around them. Whatever was acting on the Royal Ascender, it was something beyond the control of the computers on the ship, the ship itself and of him. That could only mean one thing.
“Computer; bring up telescope-eye view of target.”
There flickered the great, white sheen that was the tear, now a camera view, appearing on the screen. Carter suddenly realised the significance of what the boys from Houston had been telling him. He had seen the tear in this format before, and it had been a speck on the screen. Now the white light filled the square, extending off of it at one end. This wasn’t because they had got nearer either, as the telescopes were set to auto-adjust their magnification so as to keep the perspective size of the tear the same, at least from this vantage point.
It was getting bigger. The tear was expanding as they drew closer, and the pull of whatever lay beyond was causing the disruption, even here, seven days flying away. For a few minutes, Carter watched the readout of miles on the Status Screen, decreasing, the numbers ticking away, ticking down now into the tens of thousands. They could fly faster for longer with less fuel on board having come so far, despite the lightness of the hydrogen, but an override program was designed to slow the craft up when they came within a day. That was when Carter planned to do as Hiawatha had once showed him and take the craft into his own hands, switch to manual, and steer them to their new reality.
Why had the tear enlarged itself? What could possibly have brought about such a change? Carter racked his brains, but he was no scientist. He was not one to come up with theories as to why such strange intergalactic phenomena existed. All he did was follow the orders from the men in suits, and it was the men in suits who got their information and lectures from the guys in the white coats. But Carter didn’t feel out of his depth. It was odd; a new sensation had awoken within him, possibly something that had lain dormant in the past. It told him that he was on the right path, and to persevere, and not worry about the atmospheric changes. There was nothing he could do about them at any rate.
Nonetheless, as he returned to the bunk, Carter thought about it. There was nothing else to consider. He got the unusual impression that some force was acting against him; something was trying to stop him reaching the goal he had waited so long to reach, and was now having physical effects on the craft. If he continued to fret over it, like a little girl, it would be having it’s effect on him too. And he couldn’t allow that to happen. What was he on? Was this an attack of conscience? Carter forced a smile onto his lips, sat back on the bunk again and picked up his book. It was Paradise Lost, which he had started again from Book 1, and Satan was throwing round his baleful eyes, examining his new surroundings, following the expulsion from his heavenly abode.
Later, he wrote:
Tell me, eternal light in the sky, of your keeper, your guardian,
Your watcher; the one who lasts forever, the one who was there
When it all began, and will still be there when it all will end.
What was it that made you, who gave you wings, who gave you
Vitality, who gave you the blood of humans and the feelings
Of Gods? What were the first things He said to you, oh divine
And sacred spectrum of cadence, that informed you of your
Right and truthful path? The word of the Lord can be misread,
Eternal light in the sky, misread and misunderstood by all who
Encounter it. So beware of Our Father, who art in Heaven,
Because who knows when you’ll hear the sins of the Seven.
On reflection, Carter decided against sending this poem back to Houston. Instead, he placed the small notebook into his pocket, where it stayed for the remainder of the journey.