PThey had volunteered for this mission knowing they would never return to Earth.
The government had offered up the taxpayers’ money to fund a mission that would never return its findings.
There was no help out here, no ports of call. They were on their own.
And though there was no immediate crisis in evidence…
…Something was wrong....
Even in modern resolution, starlight was too faint to show up on his realtime screen. It was ironic to be rushing toward the distant stars at nearly the speed of light and yet not be able even to see them. Sure, he could clamber to the central core into the nonrotating tube, pull himself up the long tube and into the cupola and watch the stars from there...but who had time for that? Perhaps when the starbow became visible—that should be in just a few days—but for now he had work to do.
Work. That was all that kept his head straight these days. He had woken up groggy, even though he’d had his full allotted seven hours sleep—more than was strictly required when the ship’s rotation only produced Mars gee. He almost felt drugged, or even drunk. He had staggered out of bed, slammed his shoulder painfully against the doorframe when he walked into the bathroom (it still hurt), dropped his toothbrush three times—In fact, he had been clumsy all morning.
Today was nothing more than routine housekeeping, no in-flight events, though there had been a problem with one of the circulating pumps; still, it didn’t look good for the command pilot to be out of sorts even on a down day. Boddy was pathologically spit-and-polish about his command image.
And yet it wasn’t just him; everyone seemed listless. He turned away from his desk, swiveled the command chair around, and looked across the brightly lit command center. The crew was dragging. And it wasn’t just their demeanor—the ship itself seemed wrong. Felt wrong. It seemed absurd, but Boddy actually felt he was having trouble seeing. He was able to read the reports just fine, his observational skills were unhampered, but as he looked across the room, something seemed out of sorts. He could see the details but not the whole. He had to keep blinking. All had a dreamlike quality; the color itself was off, as though he were watching some aged movie rather than the reality of his command center.
He turned back to the screen. The ship itself was like the stars: too faint to be seen. What’s the matter with me? he wondered. What’s the matter with us?
With an absent-minded flick of the finger, he touched the tab activating the quantum recorder. Leaning forward toward the microphone, he mumbled his log.
“I’m concerned about disharmony on the ship,” he said quietly. He could edit the thing later before letting Felter listen to it, but for now he had to get his thoughts out. “We’re a crew of professional astro-nauts, trained to the peak of our individual fields, but there seems to be very little cooperation these days. We’re a quiet and introverted bunch, so it’s not much of a surprise that we don’t party and carry on like some pilots do, but when we’re not sharing data or working constructively to reach solutions, I worry.” He paused, rubbed his temples, looked around the control center. There was Joe Felter happily punching buttons at the pilot’s console. There was Reichmann analyzing the spectroscopic Doppler effect of the starlight. Farther away, squinting at some data on his screen, was assistant scientist Dennis Samuels. Diverse men of varied fields of expertise, varied interests, varied personalities, but all united in that they had volunteered for a mission that would never come back.
Speeding faster and faster away from Earth, toward the edge of the galaxy, the Eldorado was on a mission to discover, but not in any way to aid scientists on Earth; the flight plan was simple: circumnavigate the universe. As anyone with a high school diploma knew, such a mission would outlast the lifetime of the Sun. As relativistic time dilation sent the ship farther and farther into Earth’s future, even as the crew experienced the dilated time of mere weeks, soon to be mere days, then hours, then seconds—the less likely it was that life continued to exist on Earth. The point of this mission was for the crew of the Eldorado alone to probe the very ends of creation, to learn firsthand the shape of the universe, to determine the ultimate fate of all matter and to experience the very end of time...They had volunteered, though it was a hard sell to the taxpayers; a spaceship that would never return its findings. It took years of political jockeying to get the project under way. They couldn’t afford to blow it now, not now, when they might well be the last humans in the universe, not when so much heartbreak and work had finally brought them to this point.
Boddy let go his personal impressions and moved on to the more professional aspects of his log. “Awaiting report on faulty circulating pump. Frozen insulator lubricant problem is repaired. Overpressured hydrazine tank expelled on last reorientation maneuver, no problems there. We’re at twenty-eight point three psi in tank three now. Twenty-two point one in tank one, twenty-two point eight in tank two, twenty-four point four two two in tank four. M-check all balls. Pulling one hundred sixty volts DC total from primary fusion reactor on bus line. Secondary yielding one-twenty-four on systems line. Ziploc acceleration constant at one thousand two hundred eighty nine miles per hour per hour. We’re twenty-eight parsecs downrange, velocity two seven nine zero one eight four three times ZA. Attitude, M-zero ecliptic align zero point eight one, horizontal rotation two per minute. No trim expected.” He sighed, then added, “The small, nine-man crew is totally alone. It’s necessary that nothing go wrong or the whole mission could fall apart.
“That’s why I’m under so much stress.”
He stopped recording. Not the most polished entry he had ever made, but he could no longer ignore his dark thoughts, or his fears. The stakes had been so high, the crew selection so meticulous, yet he could feel it unraveling around him. He felt it as a palpable force, a ringing in his ears, a pressure behind his eyes. Could any crew, no matter how psychologically stable, no matter how well-trained, be expected to tackle this immensity?
He wanted to lean forward against the desk and bury his head in his hands. He wanted to take a nap. He wanted to retire to his quarters and watch a goddamn movie—but no, eleven men were counting on him; he had to maintain his professional veneer. (Eleven? Hadn’t he just said nine?) Leaning back against his headrest, he looked again at the black screen. Not that there was much worth seeing; in the glare of the overhead lights, the most prominent image in the screen was his own reflection—a reflection he suddenly didn’t care for. Beyond the fact that he was too thin, his hair too frizzy, his skin too pale, there was a weakness in his eyes, an uncertainty in his expression that he had always hated. Maybe that was why he had struggled to reach the top of the pyramid at NASA. He always wondered if his crew perceived what a fake he was. Beyond his overplayed veneer of authority, his true leadership was a blank as black as the screen before him, its only true image being his own reflection.
Some white particles swept past, giving an ephemeral impression of stars whipping by like in a science fiction movie. He smiled, wondering where those particles had come from. They must be from the ship; otherwise they would have flicked past far too quickly to be seen.
A throat cleared behind him. “Commander?” said the voice of Felter.
Boddy straightened. He hadn’t noticed the reflections of Felter and Garr approach behind him. He pressed his lips together into the firm grimace of no-nonsense command, and thrusting his chest out, he spun the chair around to look upon the bearded, paunchy pilot and the scruffy, gray-haired engineer. “What is it, Mr. Felter?” he projected so all the command center could hear.
“The repair status report,” Felter said, handing him a printout.
Boddy took the stack of papers, made a show of leafing through them, and said imperiously, “Report, Mr. Felter.”
“Garr is the engineer,” the pilot said. “He’s the one who actually, y’know, compiled the report, so I think you’d be better advised to have him elaborate on it rather than me.”
“Well?” Boddy snapped. He immediately felt stupid for asking Felter for the report rather than the man who had prepared it. Damn...Felter had caught him in another screw-up—and typically, rather than covering for him, Felter had telescoped it. With friends like Felter, who needed enemies?
Garr cleared his throat and, feigning a submissive tone, said, “Maintenance of the circulating pump. It’s all in the report, but I did make a few rather unprofessional observations that I didn’t think would look good on paper.”
“Well, let’s hear them.”
Smirking, Garr said, “You could read the written report first, Commander. After all, the circulator—“
Boddy glowered at Garr, who, anticipating an interruption, had stopped mid-sentence. “If I wanted to read the report first, I would have done it.”
“Of course you would have,” Garr said. “It’s just that while I was doing the diagnostic, I noticed an odd feel around the whole engineering section—something subjective, but an engineer learns to pay attention when things don’t feel right. I admit it may be nothing; it might even be my own imagination. But Acker noticed it too. We agreed that it was a feeling of unreality. It’s similar to the impending feel of an approaching thunderstorm, though there’s no static buildup and all the indicators are within the norm.” Garr paused, looking embarrassed. “I don’t know, maybe I’m imagining things. We’ve been in space a long time. Sometimes I think we’re all going crazy.”
“It’s relativity,” Boddy said. “Every day we accelerate closer and closer to the speed of light. No one has ever gone this fast before. Combine our terrific speed with our remoteness from Earth and the fact that we’re crammed aboard this ship with the same seven guys every day—“ (Seven? Wasn’t it twelve?) “—It’s not unexpected that we’d have some strange reactions to it.”
“I’ve noticed a strange feel too,” Felter jumped in. “I have been unable to account for it. There’s no scientific reason for it, but I’d advise you not to discount it if it turns out that everyone has made the same observation. Even if it’s purely a psychological phenomenon, it could become acute. In my own case, I’ve observed a, y’know, a weird atmosphere. I feel almost as though we’re in somebody’s dream, or characters in a book. I even feel as though we don’t even exist sometimes.”
It was unusual for Felter to be so open and honest with his commander and rival. Boddy immediately took his words seriously, whatever the source. “Take my word, we do,” Boddy said. “Just remember the old proof, ‘I think, therefore I am’.”
“It, uh, goes beyond that,” Felter said. He glanced uncertainly at Garr, traced a path across the floor with the toe of his boot, and said, “I’m...seeing things.”
Boddy noted the lack of reaction on Garr’s part. Was Garr seeing things too? Had the whole crew been having discussions about this? To Felter, he asked, “What are you seeing?”
“Last night, when I finished showering, I, ah, opened the curtain and—and there was a brick wall there. A solid brick wall. It completely sealed me in. And I would have sworn it was really there, I pushed against it, I called for help, and from the acoustics in the shower it sure sounded like I really was sealed in. My voice even reverberated down the drain into the water reclamation plant.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Boddy looked down at the printout of the report. “A brick wall? You obviously ripped through it with your bare hands.” He knew he shouldn’t make a fool of Felter, but couldn’t help himself. Surely Felter already knew how improbable his story sounded, and he certainly wouldn’t be opening himself up to Boddy’s ridicule unless it was frighteningly real.
Nevertheless, Boddy couldn’t help enjoying Felter’s discomfort. It was the first time Boddy could recall successfully putting the pilot in his place. Stammering, Felter said, “I admit it wasn’t really there, it couldn’t have been. Once I got ahold of myself, I closed the curtain, counted to ten, and pulled it open again, and it was gone, like it was never there. And I’m sure it wasn’t there. But the experience of seeing it had all the physical and psychological characteristics of a real experience. I would be tempted to call it a hallucination, but I’ve never hallucinated in my life. I’m a meticulous observer, I used to be a test pilot, I’m an engineer and a technician—“
“I know your qualifications,” Boddy said—though the fact that Felter had felt pressed to mention it indicated he was on the defensive. Usually it was Boddy reminding Felter of his own credentials, rather than the other way around. But this was no time to be sparring with Felter; he needed to do his duty and concentrate on the ship. “I know things have been odd around here lately. Even the color seems to be off. I look at everything and it’s as though we’re under fluorescent lamps that highlight the green. It’s almost as if I’m looking at the bad coloring of a mid twentieth century movie. But it can’t be anything more than our physiological and psychological reactions to our acceleration, our kinetic energy, and to the time dilation effect. It’s affecting our vision and our consciousness. At this point, for each minute we experience, five to six months pass on Earth, and that rate is increasing all the time. And with the ship’s rotation, the dilation is greater on the port than the starboard. Is it any wonder some of us are seeing things?”
“That’s a handy theory,” Felter said with barely concealed contempt. “How can we hope to test it if we can’t trust what we see?”
“I’ve got nothing else.” Having no answer to Felter’s question, Boddy changed the subject before Felter could rub it in. “Now I’m ready to read this report.”
Neither Felter nor Garr moved as Boddy read. The report was not encouraging; the circulating pump, located just under the upper plate near the top of the spinning box that was the Eldorado, maintained the ratio of gases in the ship’s internal atmosphere. There were three back-ups, and four units in all, but so long as the problem was not corrected, there was a danger that the one faulty unit could do enough damage. Too much oxygen was not such a serious problem; some drunkenness and sore throats would be the most likely consequence, though the deadly danger of a fire did exist. Too little oxygen, even if for a short time, could be fatal for the entire crew.
Too little oxygen...that, too, could explain everything. The fatigue, the strange feel around the ship, the odd lighting (or the perception of odd lighting), the clumsiness, even the hallucinations, all could be a result of hypoxia.
“Not very optimistic,” Garr said as Boddy read the summary on the last page. “That circulator ...”
“With the backups and the other units operating, there’s no immediate danger?” Boddy asked, hoping for reassurance.
“None yet. On page 2, I mentioned the telltale trigger; whenever the circulator fritzes out, the telltale goes off, so even if the backup doesn’t compensate, we can take action. The danger is that the series of triggers might be compromised by the original flaw in the circulator—we won’t know what that flaw is until we go through all the subsystems, and that’ll take time—“
“You haven’t been working on it, Mr. Garr?” Boddy snapped.
Garr stiffened, embarrassed. “Um.” He cleared his throat. “Well. As I said, there’s a strange feel around the engine room, makes it hard to concentrate.”
Boddy placed the report on his desk and stood. He wished he wasn’t four inches shorter than Garr. Very quietly, he said, “I’m only going to say this once. ‘I feel weird’ is not an acceptable excuse for dereliction of duty.”
Garr, who had been so condescending before, had turned ash white. No professional of any field, let alone a highly ambitious space flight engineer, cared for the phrase ‘dereliction of duty.’ “Understood, sir,” he said stiffly.
“Get down there with Acker and pay mind to your responsibilities.”
Garr was gone without another word.
Boddy returned to his seat and picked up the report, intended to read it a second time in order to digest the details. Then he noticed Felter still hovering over him. “Was there anything else?” he asked dismissively.
“Your men,” Felter said simply. “You might take care to understand them a bit better. You’ve noticed the odd feel around the ship yourself. An environmental condition that impedes concentration is something that warrants investigation, not reprimand.”
“If you want to talk to me about my command behavior, we can take it up in my quarters,” Boddy said, making a show of reading the report.
Felter either didn’t get the hint or didn’t care. “I just think maybe we ought to nip this in the bud before anybody gets the sense that they can’t bring certain problems to your attention.”
Boddy lowered the report and said softly, “Either drop it or relieve me of command.”