The Orthogonal Galaxy

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Chapter 26

The sky to the east turned to a milky blue, forecasting another arrival of the Sun. Despite a few wispy clouds that began to glow on the horizon, the Florida morning was crystal clear, and dead still. The weather was fitting to the mood of those who awoke early to witness history. As the wind held its breath, so did the thousands of spectators gathered at various locations around Kennedy Air Force Base. In the center of this group of people, several strong search lights flashed up from the launch pad onto the star of the show.

The Star Transport interstellar vehicle stood erect on the launch pad high above the ground. It was supported by three large fuel-bearing silo rockets. Each white silo was attached to the spacecraft with large bands, one under each wing, and another under the body. While Star Transport would not have the luxury of being launched into space in this manner from Earth2, the Star Energy team took advantage of this launch to minimize the consumption of the fuel that would be required for the trip home.

The Star Transport, at the center of everyone’s attention, had been considered by many an uninspiring work. As black as the depth of space it would traverse, it was designed to absorb every scrap of energy as it hurled through the darkest reaches of the cosmos. Its propulsion system was a combination of nuclear and exotic fuels, but all other electronics—including lights, computerized equipment, navigation panels, and communications devices were powered purely on electromagnetic collection panels that made up the entire body of the craft. The collectors were designed to suck in all of the solar and cosmic energy in the vicinity of the craft, much like a vacuum cleaner. For this reason, the body had no shine or luster. In fact, it largely resembled a lump of coal, and wouldn’t have been mistaken for the star of the show, had it not been for the staring crowds and the flood of blue lights, mixed with the white flashes of camera equipment.

The body was entirely seamless, except for a nearly invisible door in the back of the craft. There were no stark edges or lines to be seen anywhere. The final design of the Star Shield was a thin, transparent, but practically impenetrable compound which was sprayed onto the craft with precision jet spray robots. Once cured under extremely high temperatures, it was as smooth as glass, and harder than anything known to man. Also lacking were windows of any kind. The two-man crew would instead rely on a series of image sensors surrounding the aircraft to provide visual details of their environment.

The fuselage had the appearance of a shark, consisting of concentric ellipses that grew towards the center of the body and tapered off slightly at the back. The nose was tilted downward very slightly into a curved point designed to deflect debris away from the vehicle. Direct impacts with the nose were calculated to be about five particles per billion. In preparation for even this most unlikely scenario, the shield was sprayed on to a greater thickness of five inches at the nose, whereas the rest of the body was given two to three inches of protective coating. This black resembled that of a clown’s nose on the front of the vehicle.

Working back from the flight deck, the wings gradually tapered off of the fuselage. It was clear that the entire body was molded as one piece. No bolts or rivets anywhere. Gradual curves leaving the elliptical sides of the fuselage formed thinly flattened airfoils to create the wings. In the back, the tail stabilizer curved away from the fuselage gradually. This was the image for thousands of onlookers and millions stationed at television monitors around the world as the sun broke the horizon far across the Atlantic Ocean. Broadcasters added to the drama with lavish countdown ceremonies, colorful commentaries and exclusive pre-taped interviews with the astronauts and engineers behind the ST3 mission. Having tested the Star Transport during a couple of rigorous test flights—first around the moon, and then the sun—this was the third such launch in the history of the spacecraft. But, of course, this was the mission for which NASA was grooming the Star Transport all along. And while the ST1 and ST2 missions certainly drew the attention of many, this is the one that had the world enraptured. This is the one where suddenly-famous astronauts Paol Joonter and Blade Slater would say farewell to loved ones and the inhabitants of Earth1 for more than a decade.

The family of Joonter, as well as Slater’s uncle and mother sat front and center in the VIP stands just above the astronaut preparation facility. Wide-eyed spectators waited anxiously for the emergence of their beloved astronauts. Joram, Kath, and Reyd joined Professor Zimmer on the left-hand side of the stand, and watched as the scene unfolded down below.

Launch specialists zoomed about every direction whether in car or on foot. Some hurried about, while others barely moved. Security forces held back crowds, which were cordoned off from access to the tarmac, and all were clamoring for a view of the scene.

At long last, two large doors to the building slid open, as a procession of specialists filed out double-file. Camera flashes further lightened the dawn as Joonter and Slater quickly came to view, attired in deep blue spacesuits and beaming smiles. Each looked up to the VIP room, waved, winked, and blew kisses to their loved ones. Spontaneous applause erupted, and even the driest of eyes were threatened with emotion. Shouts of “I love you”, “Good luck”, and “Godspeed” could barely be heard through the din.

After a brief pause, the procession continued towards the launch pad, where an elevator whisked the two heroes along with a pair of attendants towards a platform just below the rear of the Star Transport. As the bay door opened, the attendants unrolled a ladder from a spool on the platform up into the bay of the spaceship. Within a minute the ladder stopped, and the attendants returned to the side of the astronauts. Joonter turned to look over the platform, gave a brisk wave with his right hand, and blew one last kiss with his left. In an instant, he climbed out of sight, into the belly of the vehicle.

An attendant scaled the ladder behind him. Because the Star Transport was placed upright, getting strapped into the cockpit seats was nearly impossible without assistance. The attendant harnessed Paol into his seat while the astronaut held on to a bar on either side of the seat to keep from sliding out. The attendant again emerged on the platform, but quickly disappeared inside the craft again with Paol’s blue space helmet in hand.

Once Paol’s assistant emerged from Star Transport a second time, this same sequence continued for Blade, but not before he could give his final farewell to the crowds with a full-tooth smile and two thumbs up. Cameras zoomed tightly into his radiant face, giving field correspondents plenty of material to work with, touting the efforts of the heroes during training, invoking the encouraging example of Slater’s life in overcoming challenges, and praising NASA for their visionary efforts.

Once both astronauts were secured, the attendants left the platform, and gave a signal towards the mission control tower. They quickly rolled the ladder back onto its spool and confirmed the complete sealing of the door.

Blade’s head turned slowly to his comrade. Noticing the movement out of the corner of his eye, Paol turned to see a very anxious and wide-eyed expression on Blade’s face.

“What’s the matter, Blade?”

“I’s just wonderin’ what we got ourselves into here, Partna’. Why this is some fool dumb thing we’re doin’, ain’t it?”

“Now, Blade—” said Paol softly. “You aren’t getting cold feet now are you?”

“No, they’ve been cold ‘bout five years now. I’m just now recognizin’ it.”

“Blade, what better thing could you be doing with your life right now?”

“Anythin’ better than committin’ suicide quickly comes to mind.”

Paol grew agitated and surprised by this comment, and scolded his fellow astronaut. “Blade! You were the one who convinced me that this mission has a perfectly fine chance of succeeding. Why are you second guessing that now?”

“C’mon, buddy,” said Blade. “Ya’ can’t nohow tell me that ya’ don’t often think ‘bout the fact that we know so little ‘bout what we’re gettin’ into. I mean, nobody—nobody!—really knows anythin’ ‘bout this ride we’re gonna hitchhike on. Look, we have no clue ‘bout the real effects super-warp travel is gonna do on a livin’ bein’. And, we don’t know nothin’ ‘bout Earth2 that ain’t more than twenty-seven thousand years old. Fo’ all we know, evolution has advanced to the point that we’re gonna have to run from dinosaurs or cannibals fo’ five years, waitin’ fer our bus to return.”

“Dinosaurs and cannibals?” Blade asked curiously. “Is that the worst you can think of? Why I’m far more concerned about lawyers and politicians.”

“Say wha—” Blade looked at Paol’s half-hidden smile and realized a bit later than he should have that he was being joked with. Blade responded with grateful laughter that helped to strengthen his resolve.

Just then, a voice from mission control was heard coming from no particular location in the cockpit. In fact, it sounded as if the noise was formed inside the ear. “Star Transport Pilot, all systems are a go for take-off in T minus 2 minutes.”

“Copy that, Ground Control,” replied Paol.

The voice continued, “Please provide cross-check of onboard systems, ST3.”

Paol quickly worked through a checklist of systems.

“Avionics: check.”

“Communication: check.”

“Computation: check…”

When Paol had completed his checklist, Blade raced through a list he had also been working on.

“Propulsion: check.”

“Navigation check.”

“A/V check...”

“Mission ST3, it appears that all systems are check, and launch will commence in T minus seventy seconds.” Then in a less robotic manner, the voice asked. “Star Transport, is there anything you’d like to tell the inhabitants of Earth1?”

Paol took a quick breath and replied, “To the citizens of the world, we thank you for the opportunity, and can’t wait to return with the knowledge you wish to gain from this expedition. To our families, we love you and hope the years will pass as quickly for you as the distance will for us.”

And then, a final word from Mission Control before the final countdown. “Godspeed, ST3.”

Anticipation grew with each second that passed. “T minus fifteen, fourteen… T minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three…”

In a sudden blast, rockets roared to life and exploded into a fireball that lit up the Florida morning even more effectively than the low-lying Sun. Spectators struggled to determine whether they should shield their eyes or cover their ears. The vehicle lifted gently off the ground, cleared the launch pad, and then quickly shot the Star Transport into the atmosphere. The roaring of the rockets gradually subsided giving way to the cheers of the crowd. All were applauding, yelling, and whistling enthusiastically as their beloved astronauts approached the upper reaches of the atmosphere.

Paol and Blade sat silent in the darkness of the cockpit, enveloped in the discomfort of rapid acceleration and intense vibration. They had experienced this multiple times in the simulator, but this time it was real, and that knowledge multiplied the difficulty of the situation, not to mention the churning of their stomachs.

Medical personnel watched abnormal vital signs in both astronauts with guarded concern. While nothing they saw was unexpected, they also knew that the elevated heart-rate, body temperature, and rapid breathing were not desired.

A sudden jolt shook both astronauts in a tense, yet anticipated moment. Through the darkness of the flight deck, the astronauts knew that this was the moment of separation. The two wing-mounted silo rocket boosters separated from the Star Transport, and the high-tension straps whipped rapidly away from the body. The astronauts braced for one final jolt, when the third silo was to be released. In an instant, the vehicle lunged upwards, while nauseated stomachs lurched in the opposite direction. Blade closed his eyes while Paol inhaled deeply.

At long last, the astronauts exited the atmosphere and the ride became more smooth and comfortable. Slowly, as the astronauts realized that the worst was behind them, vital signs began to stabilize—for both the astronauts, and mission control personnel.

“Piece of cake, huh partner?” Paol reached over and slapped his navigator in the arm.

“Yeah, I can’t wait to see what super-warp’s gonna feel like.” Blade shook his head slowly.

A voice from the planet they just departed sounded in the cockpit. “Star Transport Pilot, please provide physical check.”

Paol replied “Pilot reports no major physical problems—a slight nausea. That’s all. Over.”

“Star Transport Navigator?”

“Is my head s’pposed to feel this way? Sheesh!”

After a brief pause, a voice continued, “Navigator, medical staff reports some head stress reported in your vitals, but nothing out of the ordinary… so, yeah… it should feel that way for a while. Guys, I regret that we don’t have any beverage service on this flight, but we do have some in-flight entertainment.”

With that, the light began to grow throughout the cockpit. The flight deck transformed into a virtual planetarium. The dome shaped roof shone with stars, and the bright curved outline of the blue and white Earth dominated the left side of the display. Drawn to the light, both astronauts turned their heads to the left and gawked at the display.

“Wow,” was the response from a wide-eyed Slater, whose word was more breathed than it was audible.

Paol turned his head back to the right to see his navigator’s face full of stunned expression. “Pretty amazing, isn’t it, buddy?”

“Ground control, thank ya’ fo’ the show,” Blade expressed, as he looked back to his left. “These views are simply amazin’… it’s just like lookin’ out a real window.”

When systems engineers considered the body of Star Transport, they knew that the astronauts would need an unprecedented view of their surroundings for proper flight and navigation, but they also wanted every square inch for the collector panels to ensure a sufficient supply of energy for the entire trip. The solution was to place miniature high-resolution cameras around the fuselage to provide a full panoramic three-dimensional image.

This seemed like a great idea, except that early demonstrations proved that the quality of the video wasn’t realistic enough. Psychologists noted that simulated scenarios with video-game quality proved that participants would be emboldened to take unnecessary risks. With improved video quality, responses were more scenario-appropriate. As a result, engineers pushed themselves in the design of the video until they obtained near perfection in image quality. In an experiment, less than one out of a thousand could discern the difference between a real image seen through the window and a projected digital scene through the high-quality display.

Time stood still as the astronauts enjoyed the quiet and stillness of space as Earth floated quietly below them. The tranquility of the view was in stark contrast to the turbulence of life down below: people scurrying in all different directions, horns blaring in morning rush hour traffic, sirens attending to emergencies of all kinds, gunfire in war-ravaged countries. It didn’t seem possible that the still blue of the ocean, the silky white of the clouds, the extensive sands of the deserts, nor the deep green of the forests could ever have induced such chaos.

Within minutes the Earth faded behind them, in spite of their necks craning to catch as much of the show as possible. Eventually, the duo had to concede that their home was gone—for more than twelve years. While hearts hung heavy, they knew that the best thing they could do was to just look forward—and that’s exactly what they did, for their first task lay exactly straight ahead of them in full view.

“It’s so big,” Paol gasped.

“Sure is, Buddy,” the navigator agreed with a huge grin.

“It’s just that—you know—you see this thing in the sky night after night, and you just don’t realize how big it is. It’s—well—I can’t even comprehend its size. Just look at that crater there, for example. How big do you think that thing is? I’m guessing I could get lost in that thing.”

“You mean that one there with all them rays comin’ out of it?” Blade indicated with his finger straight out from his arm and one eye shut to focus in on the object in question.

“Yeah.”

“Why that there is the Copernicus Crater. A couple of those early Apollo missions landed jus’ south of there. That’s one nasty impact there, to be sure.”

“Why do you say that?” Paol looked over at his navigator

“Well that hole’s ‘bout 50 miles wide, and—” Blade paused for effect, sensing the eager stare of his partner. “—and over two miles deep! Good luck climbin’ outta that hole, if ya’ ever fall in.”

Blade turned and looked at Paol. “See those white rays comin’ outta the crater? They’re ‘bout five hundred miles in every direction. How hard must two things hit each other to send dirt and rocks flyin’ that far?”

Paol pursed his lips and let out a low whistle. “I’m trying to imagine the view from the rim of a crater that is two miles deep.”

“Well, don’t try,” Blade shrugged. “There’s nothin’ like it on Earth. Even if you’re standin’ atop Everest, the base of the mountain is only ‘bout two miles below. Even then, ya’ wouldn’t get an idea ‘bout what a two-mile deep hole looks like ‘gainst the flat land you’re standin’ on.”

Silence ensued in the cockpit as Star Transport raced towards the moon, on an apparent crash course. Eventually, the vehicle steered away to make its way around to the other side, where the astronauts would rendezvous with one final fuel stop. A moon orbiter with a trio of astronauts awaited the arrival of Joonter and Slater to top them off and give them that extra burst to speed them on their way towards Jupiter, which was projected as the closest spot to catch the super-luminal comet as it passed through the solar system again.

“Moon Orbiter, this is ST3,” announced Paol. “Do you copy?”

“Loud and clear, ST3. What is your ETA?”

“We are currently at an orbital distance of 175 miles, and are anticipating arrival to your orbit in about 27 minutes.”

“We look forward to seeing you, ST3. Over.”

Blade scrutinized the navigational display for any deviance in calculated trajectories, or orbital velocities for either the Star Transport or the Moon Orbiter, but this was a mere formality, as the computers controlled everything exactly according to plan.

While Blade monitored the computer displays, Paol maintained a constant vigil on their surroundings to make sure that nothing orbiting the moon might cross their path. Ever since NASA constructed the first astronaut base on the moon, the amount of space debris jettisoned by spacecraft, satellites, and rocket ships had increased greatly, and there were a couple of different orbits which posed greater hazards. Having past uneventfully through both, Paol turned his attention to picking up a visual on the moon orbiter. He strained to see, but with the sea of bright stars, it was difficult to catch a glimpse of the fuel orbiter, and the angle of light from the sun did not help his cause.

“Blade!” Paol announced abruptly. “There she is. At two o-clock with an angle of declination about five percent.”

“How’d ya’ spot her? Against the backdrop of the moon, she’s so small.”

“I finally spotted movement with respect to the stars just above the horizon of the moon. Anyway, I think we’re in perfect position, aren’t we?”

“Yes, sir… I’ll radio ahead.” Blade switched on his radio. “Moon Orbiter, this is Star Transport Navigator. We have a positive visual ID, and are closin’ in.”

“ST3, we see you as well, and are ready for rendezvous.”

The vehicles closed in slowly. Paol took over manual control, in order to ease the Star Transport just over the top of the orbiter, passing within just a few feet of each other. As the orbiter passed below, and out of sight, his heart started racing. To know that he was so dangerously close to another spaceship, and that both were racing at tens of thousands of miles per hour. The smallest mistake could mean disaster.

“ST3, we see you overhead, and are taking over the negotiation.”

“Roger, Orbiter.” Paol breathed a deep sigh of relief to know that the pilot below him was now in control of nudging the two vehicles together.

Silence ensued for a couple of minutes before a sound of a thump caused Paol and Blade to lurch forward. Wide-eyed, the two looked behind them and saw a round portal open on the rear bay door. The round face of an astronaut, with a large tuft of blonde hair floating above his head emerged in the hole with a beaming smile.

“Star Transport. Permission to board your vessel?”

“O’Ryan!” exclaimed Blade with a mile-wide smile. He would’ve bounded towards the visitor to greet him warmly, but he was still becoming accustomed to weightlessness, in spite of all the zero-G training on Earth. Further, Star Transport was very short from floor to ceiling, so the astronauts had to move around a very confined space. Garrison O’Ryan, on the other hand, floated swiftly and effortlessly through the cabin to greet the ST3 companions.

“Why—the last time we met, I thought you’s all against gettin’ back up in space,” Blade stated as he took a firm grasp of the visitor’s hand.

“Me too, Blade—me too. I fully expected never to come back up here after the incident on Camp Mars. I still shiver to recall the destruction and the weeks of waiting and wondering.”

“What made you get back in the saddle, Garrison?” Paol now joined in the exchange.

With pride, O’Ryan answered, “You two!”

Paol and Blade looked at each other, confused by this answer.

“Like the rest of the world, I’ve been watching this whole mission unfold. I’ve read the interviews in the magazine, listened to the press conference updates, and I realized that if you guys could have the courage to travel tens of thousands of light years, the least I could do would be to travel the a few light seconds to help top off your fuel tank before making the long voyage.”

“Well, we appreciate ya’ makin’ the trip just fer us, Garrison,” said Blade gratefully.

Paol continued to catch up with their astronaut friend, “How’s the family, Garrison.”

“Great, thanks—everyone is just great. Had you heard about the baby?”

“Yes, we did—we also heard that Timmer wasn’t exactly thrilled.”

“Funny—when he first found out that he was going to have a little sister, he was quite agitated. ‘Send her back!’ he demanded. But now, he seems to enjoy playing the role of big brother. He loves helping her with her bottle, but he still thinks diapers are icky”.

“Well, they is icky,” Blade agreed with a comical shudder and contorted face, to which the group laughed readily.

“So how are you guys feeling anyway?” Garrison asked with genuine interest in his pair of comrades with whom he had spent more than a few hours in training.

“We’re doing well,” Paol spoke for both. “Leaving Earth was a bit of a trying experience. But the headaches are gone, and the stomachs as good as ever—except for the want of something a little more solid in them. As we adjust to weightlessness, NASA is keeping our diets fairly soft.”

O’Ryan shook his head, and asked again. “No, I mean how are you feeling?” He hung on the last word for a moment to help clarify its meaning.

“Ah—you mean emotionally,” Paol looked at Blade and a brief silence ensued.

After a deep sigh, Blade commenced. “We ain’t gonna kid you, Garrison—it ain’t easy comin’ to realize you’re leavin’ everythin’ behind fo’ more and a dozen years—” He swallowed hard. “—Or worse.” His voice trailed off.

Paol stepped up to complete his partner’s train of thoughts. “We really have no clue if we’ll make it back, right? You go through every imaginable horrible scenario. I didn’t see Camp Mars first hand, but I saw plenty of pictures. The thing that annihilated your home up there—well, that’s the thing we’re hitching a ride on, right? You can’t find a wind tunnel in the Solar System that can shake this tin can up enough to know that it will hold up in the barrage of particles traveling at twenty five thousand times the speed of light. Then, how many hostile settings can you think of for this planet that we haven’t the foggiest notion about. But you know what’s worse than thinking about all of that, Garrison?”

Garrison shook his head silently.

“What’s worse is thinking about it over and over for the next twenty-seven thousand light years of travel.”

“But it’s supposed to go in a blink of an eye,” said Garrison in amazement. “As far as I understand what the physicists are saying, you guys are going to sleep through most of it.”

“Really, Garrison?” Paol’s eyes narrowed as he probed the astronaut’s expression for any clues to help him discern his thoughts. “Why, then, did every astronaut—including yourself—refuse the opportunity to come on this mission?”

O’Ryan was not prepared for this loaded question. He stammered through some unconvincing vocalized pauses, and weakly mumbled words like “family”, and “Mars.” After collecting himself, he admitted. “Guys, I know—this isn’t anywhere close to a slam dunk, and I thought through many of the same issues, but even if I did want to go, I was still traumatized from the Mars incident. Besides, I couldn’t leave my young family. My son would grow up without his father—he would be 19 years old when I returned. My baby would be a teenager before she even had a chance to meet her father. You wouldn’t go either if you were in my shoes.”

“Nope. I wouldn’t.” A blank look of bitterness swept over Joonter’s face, and in a blink, every moment since his arrest flashed through his mind in an instant—the unjust verdict, the ridiculous sentence, the red-eyed and tear-stained face of his wife, the plane crash in Nevada, his injuries in Brazil, and now this—a mission touted as a certain suicide by many rational individuals.

A voice over the communication system interrupted his thoughts. “ST3, this is Moon Orbiter do you copy?”

Paol turned his head towards the cockpit, but in his mental state, he found himself rooted to the spot. Blade grabbed hold of the side of the vessel, and spun himself around awkwardly. Making his way towards his seat, he sat down and placed a headset over his right ear.

“This is ST3. We copy ya’.”

“Fueling is complete, and we are ready to untether, but I think you have one of our crew on board.”

“Yes we do,” Blade said. “He says it’s more cozy here, and he’s thinkin’ ‘bout takin’ a spin with us.”

“That’s a negative ST3,” the voice replied with a chuckle. “Tell Mr. O’Ryan that he missed his opportunity, and will have to wait for the ST4 mission now. Over.”

“Copy that, Moon Orbiter. We’ll have yer boy back with ya’ in a short moment. Over.” Blade slowly pulled the headset off and placed it in its compartment next to his seat. He allowed the weightlessness to distance himself from his seat, and turned around to the other two astronauts.

“Well, Garrison. You go have a safe ride back home. We’ll have a lot of catchin’ up to do in, say, twelve years or so.” Blade offered a firm handshake.

“Godspeed, gentlemen. I do wish you all the best.”

“Thanks, Garrison,” said Paol with a tight-lipped smile. “Don’t worry about us. We’re going to do everything imaginable to make this mission a success.”

O’Ryan nodded and winked at Joonter, as he backed out of the spacecraft.

“Hey, Garrison?” Paol called out as he began to shut the portal through which he had entered.

“Yeah, Paol.”

“I’d appreciate it if this exchange remains off the record. I don’t want Joyera any more worried than she needs to be while I’m gone.”

“Absolutely, Paol. Everything we talked about stays right here until you guys open this hatch up at Kennedy.” And with a quick wave of the wrist that hatch sealed shut again, with a sound that reverberated like the bars of the cell at the penitentiary.

Paol and Blade strained to hear the detachment and departure of the Moon Orbiter, and when they were absolutely certain that there was no audible sign of their fuel tanker, they slowly returned to their seats and watched the diminishing figure of the orbiter in the video monitor on the domed ceiling. Craning their necks backwards in their reclined seats until the dot of the spaceship was no longer visible, they realized that they had seen the last thing from their home planet for more about a dozen long years ahead of them.

In an instinctive impulse to latch on to anything that would continue to connect them to their home planet, their heads turned to the left where the miniscule blue and white Earth sat a little less than half illuminated from the Sun. Diminished by the immense horizon of the moon below them, it was hard to fathom how they used to live there along with nearly ten billion other inhabitants. How utterly small and insignificant it seemed in the vast panorama of stars that filled their little planetarium. Speechless, they paid their final homage to this place they used to call home and then mechanically set a course in the opposite direction for a destination that was indiscernible among all the thousands of stars in their view.

“Looks like we’re half way there, Buddy,” Blade announced.

“Is that so?” Paol replied lifting his eyes from the monitor where he was reading the navigational display. The data demonstrated that Star Transport was now “204,975,___” miles from Earth and “204,974,___” miles from Jupiter. The reason that the least significant digits were blank was simply because they were hurtling towards Jupiter at several hundred miles every second. At these rates, the odometer changes so quickly that there is no way to perceive anything in the lower digits.

“You know,” began Paol. “Time seems to be going by faster than I thought it would. I thought that sitting in the same seat hour upon hour would get tedious.”

“I thinks it helps that NASA gives us a good schedule to follow,” surmised Blade. “The daily activities seems broken up pretty well.”

“Good point! There really is nothing on the schedule so lengthy as to make the time go slow. Between meals, exercise, scientific experiments, journals and logs, reading, and communications, the day does go by quite naturally.”

“I understand now why they told us how important it is to stick to the schedule. Our bodies are used to the night fo’ sleepin’, and the daylight fo’ bein’ awake. But up here, all 24 hours are exactly the same. The body needs the schedule to keep from gettin’ into some whacky state. I was thinkin’ when I woke up this mornin’ that the body would be used to, say, a 27 hour schedule if that’s how fast Earth rotated. I wonders what kind of schedule the body would naturally fit into if there was no night or day. I could see things gettin’ totally random, and that would be unhealthy, since there’d be no regular pattern of sleep.”

This became food for thought, and both astronauts were silent in their musings on this matter, as they stared—literally—off into space. Jupiter was a focal point of much staring to be sure. First, it was their next destination, and further, it was directly in front of them, but even more than that, it was quickly becoming the most recognizable object in the sky. Occasionally, they would force their planetarium to turn to a different location, and most often they would choose to turn 180 degrees around, to watch the sun growing more dim and cold. It was shrinking and they knew that in the coming days, Jupiter would begin to appear larger than the Sun.

A series of three soft chimes directed the astronauts’ attention back to the control panel in front of them. In large letters, the display splashed the text, “Communication from: Joyera Joonter.” It had been eight days since their departure from the Moon, and Star Transport was now far enough away from Earth that communications between the vehicle and its home base now required well over a quarter of an hour before arriving at its destination. As a result, there were no conversations per se, just messages sent back and forth at regular intervals of the day. Immediate family had a phone number they could call to leave a recorded message. Mission control specialists would then package and send these conversations up at regular intervals up to a few times each day. While Blade’s uncle or mother had stopped calling when they were unable to speak to Blade in real time, Joyera continued to call her husband once or twice every day.

Paol eagerly grabbed a headset, and placed it on his head to receive the message from his wife. “Paol, my love, as I continue to monitor your spaceship on the computer, you are getting so far from Earth that it is really starting to set in now that we will be apart for a long time. But, the days still go by quickly. The media still call for interviews and updates. I can’t go out in public without being thronged by people with encouraging remarks and compliments. You are a real hero, and I’m so proud. Oh… the boys… I almost forgot. They received an invitation to the White House by the President’s son. They say they’re ‘wildly ultra-dimensional’—kids and their slang these days. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to Paris, but NASA’s public relations office is putting on quite a bit of pressure. They fear that if I refuse the offer from President Chartier, she may take offense. The problem is that I know it will remind me of our tenth anniversary in Europe. It’s going to feel empty there without you, Dear.

“Regarding your last message, I’m about half way through Seddy’s book. I agree with you that his theories on extra-terrestrial intelligence evolution are quite interesting, but I have to point out they are just that—theories. We still haven’t discovered a single intelligent communication coming from anywhere in the Milky Way. I know, I know… distance between stars, dark energy interference, yada yada. I do have to reiterate, Paol… please be careful on Earth2, and don’t take anything for granted. Even if you find intelligent beings, don’t take anything at face value. Unless the same human seed was used to fill inhabitable planets, we can’t assume anything that anybody says or does. Just… just be careful, Love!

“Well… gotta run now. I’ll look forward to hearing your voice when I return home this evening. Have a great day, and tell Blade I said hello… poor fellow. It must be hard not having any family to talk with, especially at this time of such change. I’m sure he could use some encouraging words. I love you, my hero!”

Paol slowly removed the headset and mechanically returned it to its holster beside his seat. He looked over to notice his companion lying back with his eyes closed and a peaceful smile on his face. He reached out with his right hand to get his partner’s attention, and then drew it back, thinking it was better not to disturb him in such contemplative peace and relaxation. Instead, he slipped the headset back on and listened to Joyera’s message a couple more times. Hearing her voice helped him feel that she wasn’t so far away, even though he knew that hundreds of millions of miles were beyond his comprehension.

After perhaps a half dozen times through the message, he again removed the headset and after looking down while replacing it in its compartment, he was startled by an apparent flash on the video display. Slightly worried, his eyes shot all about the domed display, looking up, to the left, right, behind, and straight ahead. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, but had there not been a flash of light out of the corner of his eyes?

“What’s up, Partna’?” Blade asked curiously, having sensed the sudden movements of Paol. Noticing Paol’s wide eyes glancing about in different directions, he restored his seat to its full upright position, and was restored from his meditative state to full attention.

“Nothing—I—think” was Joonter’s reply.

Blade’s stare was persistent. “I’m thinkin’ that was a bit less than convincin’ there, Paol. What happened?”

“No, I—I just was putting up the headset and I thought I saw—”

Paol’s sentence was cut off abruptly at the second flash, which equally caught both of the astronauts by surprise. Neither directly saw the brief flare that flashed directly in front of the Star Transport, but there was no denying a brief and sudden explosion of white light directly in front of them.

Blade forced a smile onto his face. “No, wait! Ya’ know how much I love guessin’ games. You thought ya’ saw a flash of brilliant white light out in the front of the ship, didn’t you?”

Since both were now staring at the video display with both eyes fully open, Paol couldn’t see the expression on his companion’s face, but having familiarized himself with Blade’s playful inflections, Paol responded, “Why, how on Earth2 did you know that, Blade?”

“Lucky guess, Partna’… lucky guess.”

Complete silence in the cockpit added to the tension, when all of a sudden.

“Whoa!”

“What the—?”

A third, nearly blinding flash occurred.

“Blade, can you see?” Paol questioned, while shielding his eyes. “I was practically looking at that thing straight on.”

“I know what ya’ mean.” Blade’s eyes were closed, but he was feeling around the control panel when he saw a fourth and fifth flash through his eyelids. Locating a compartment underneath the panel, he pulled out a pair of dark glasses and put them on. Shielding the top of his eyes with his left hand, he squinted through his glasses, while searching the darkened control panel for the right button, as a few more flashes occurred with increasing frequency.

“Ah, there ya’ are,” Blade addressed the button of interest. In a moment, the flashing ceased, as the planetarium quickly transitioned from video display to cockpit lighting. Both astronauts were left squinting and blinking rapidly, as the lights came on.

“Thanks, Buddy,” Paol said. “Good thinking, on shutting off the display.”

“Sure thing, Cap’n, but what the heck is goin’ on out there.”

“That’s a good question.” Paol was reeling from the excitement, but quickly regained his focus, and went to work. “Can you start a communication to Ground Control? Send them a video feed starting at time 14 hundred 12 hours. Give them a full 360 video. I know we only saw flashes directly in front, but let’s not rule out any pertinent data. Let them know that I’ll provide them with full diagnostic reports in ten minutes. I’m going to head to the back of the ship first, to make sure mechanical and life support systems aren’t impacted by the event. I’ll be back in 2 minutes.”

With that, Paol quickly flipped himself out of his seat and drifted towards the back of the vehicle, and the cockpit was a blur of activity. Paol opened and closed panels, took note of monitor and gauge levels, while Blade threw on his headset and spoke out his message while fervently working with the buttons and touch screens on the control panel.

While floating horizontally and holding on to a handrail with his left hand, Paol worked through the panels and meters with his right hand, when he started to feel a tug on his left arm. Star Transport was beginning to slowly lurch. He fixed his gaze towards the front of the ship in order to assess the change in direction of the vehicle.

“Blade! Why are we drifting downward?” Paol shouted to gain the attention of his companion in the middle of his message to NASA.

“—at least eight or ten flashes in increasin’ frequen—hold on—we’re moving. Yes, Paol. You’re right we are pitchin’ fo’ward gradually. Um—debris detection, Paol… debris… the nav-comp says we’re goin’ through a debris field. You might want—you should come buckle up buddy, I don’t know what kind of course correction this system’s gonna do to us. Uh. Mission Control, please corroborate event. Do the flashes correspond to debris detection event? Over.”

Blade flipped off the recording and pushed the transmit button. “Gimme yer hand, Paol,” Blade partially fastened his seat harness with his right hand while looking back and extending as far as he could with his left hand.

Paol grabbed his partner by the hand and around the wrist, as the latter gradually pulled him back into the cockpit. He clumsily tossed himself into his seat, and both engaged full seat harnesses.

“Ok, Cap’n… d’ya ever remember hearin’ the Star Shield team mention flashes? Could this thing be zappin’ debris? Would that cause the light?”

“Makes sense, Pal. All of the flashes were almost directly ahead of us, which is where the impact of debris should be occurring, but you’re right. I don’t remember being prepped for the extreme light show. By the way, what is our heading now, Blade?”

“Looks like we’re ‘bout 0.8 degrees below ecliptic and 2.3 degrees to the left side.”

“Aha! Here we go.” Paol exclaimed while working one of the monitors. Pointing to the screen, he presented his findings. “Right there. An asteroid about 50K miles down range. The computer estimates it at about five hundred meters wide! That’s definitely an object worth steering around.”

“Ya’ think the flashes was debris from the asteroid, then?”

“I think we can figure out if it was.” Pointing to a monitor, Paol described his assessment. “You see, the first flash occurred right here around 14 hundred 15 hours. We should pass the orbit of the asteroid at about 14 hundred 28 hours. That means the debris on the other side should cease around 14 hundred 45, say 50 at the most. We’ll try to fade up the video display around 14 hundred 40 hours to see. In the meantime, we’ll want to capture the entire video, and Star Shield sensor data and wrap it up for NASA.”

“I don’t gets it, Paol. They tolds us that the trip through the belt would be easy.”

“They said that it was a very, very low probability that we would experience any debris. They based their calculations on their map of the asteroid belt and our timeframe through here, but it is purely statistical. Even NASA doesn’t know all of the tiniest asteroids that orbit up here. The space is too big to categorize all of the smallest rocks. Either we just got really lucky—”

“Uh—dontcha mean unlucky, Joonter!” Blade corrected.

Paol smiled appreciatively. “Either we got really unlucky, or perhaps this indicates a much more dense field in the asteroid belt than was previously estimated. I mean NASA has sent hundreds, if not thousands of probes up here, you’d think that would be sufficient to get a decent idea of density. But then again—” Paol trailed off as he noticed another slight course correction. The ship had leveled off below the asteroid and was traveling parallel to the ecliptic plane of the solar system. Likely, this meant that they had cleared the bottom of the asteroid already.

“Then again,” persued Blade. “The asteroid belt is ‘bout 2 billion miles in circumference. Even if two thousand probes have come out this way, that’s still one fer every million miles of circumference. That’s hardly sufficient to know what’s really out here.”

“Aha!” Paol interjected triumphantly. “Look at monitor five. The computer is beginning to collate data sets from the Star Shield.”

Paol swiped his finger across the top of the monitor, where a blue 3D line drawing in the shape of the Star Transport demonstrated itself on the monitor. After pressing the playback indicator, the video showed an accelerated time lapse of collisions with the Star Shield indicated by red flashing dots on various parts of the front of the spaceship. An impact counter went from a start of zero to nearly three thousand.

“I’m so glad you turned off that video display. Could you imagine how bright it is out there right now with a peak of several impacts every second?”

“Well, at least we know that the shield is workin’.”

“Indeed.” Paol nodded and sighed, in realization that the pair had successfully come through the first of what could be many challenges and risks in the years to come.

The ST3 mission control room was a much larger and more active facility than the room in which Professor Zimmer and his research contingency used for studying the yellow beam just over six years ago. Rather than just two rows of flat work stations, there were sixteen independent stations scattered throughout the large floor, with each station serving two mission specialists. The stations had sizeable work surfaces with eighteen inch walls at the back of the station where mounted stacked glass monitor panels filled the back wall. Each station and wall jutted out at a 30 degree angle on either side, providing a second set of wall-mounted panels, giving each specialist a wrap-around work space. The angle allowed for efficient usage of both monitors, as specialists could quickly see data from both screens equally well.

The stacked glass panels were a relatively new and costly technology. When turned off, the monitors appeared as little more than a stack of four panes of glass, each just three millimeters thick. Each panel is separated by a vacuum space of five millimeters, and together, the panels were all encased in a single, light-weight housing. When turned on, each panel was independently controlled by any computer capable of multiple parallel image generation. The computer manages pixel transparency independently, such that any portion of the screen can be fully transparent, fully opaque, or any degree of transparency in between. In this way, a portion of the screen can be opaque, while others can be partially transparent to allow seamless overlapping of multiple images. This can be useful when engineers wish to see a model of Star Transport on the back screen with overlays of surface temperature on another, an astronaut position on a third screen, and air quality on a fourth. Each pixel projection is controlled by a system of lasers mounted in the bottom of the display on the edge of the glass, and each pixel is projected onto a curved bubble inside of the glass pane in order to provide image shifting for parallax control. For a single engineer looking straight on to the display, parallax is not an issue, but the concept of parallax adjustment on curved pixilation is necessary to allow multiple viewers to see the same stacked images without image shifting. If one viewer is sitting to the right of the screen, then his angle of view would otherwise cause images to appear shifted, thus distorting the stacking of images. The computer takes this problem into account by shifting the image for each panel onto different pixels for viewers of different angles.

The front wall of the room contained a main mission control monitor 20 feet tall and 40 feet wide. It was flanked on either side by two smaller monitors, each of which was only 10-15 feet in diameter. On the center of the main control, a computerized image depicted the planet Jupiter. A thin red circle tightly hugging the planet showed the orbit of the Star Transport, with a small dot indicating the current location of the ship. On the opposite side of the planet, at the right edge of the screen a curving yellow line emerged and disappeared on the display, indicating the predicted course of the superluminal comet, and its flyby of the largest planet in the Solar System. Star Transport was clearly using the planet as a shield from the intense radiation field anticipated from the comet in a high-tech game of hide and seek.

From a curved theater-like balcony, which is used as an observation deck, a large gathering of media, NASA officials, and politicians were gathered. Seated on the front row on the right side of the balcony, Professor Zimmer sat with his three post-doc astronomers, Joram Anders, Kath Mirabelle, and Reyd Eastman. There was an obvious tension throughout the room, with all eyes glued to the central display.

“Professor,” Joram whispered as he leaned over in his seat towards his white-haired mentor. “What are your thoughts on the matter? Our calculations indicated an arrival of the comet nearly a half hour ago.”

“No need for worry yet, Mr. Anders,” Zimmer consoled his colleague. “A thirty minute discrepancy on an orbit of nearly six and a half years is not outside of normal statistical deviation.”

Joram nodded, but his pursed lips and narrowed eyes indicated that he was clearly not placated. Two minutes later, he inquired, “We’ve only seen one orbit of this thing, Professor. What if it doesn’t return?”

“And why would it not return, Mr. Anders?” Zimmer responded into Joram’s ear to avoid disrupting the focused silence of mission control personnel. “A collision is outside of the likelihood of possibility. As you know, this thing orbits in the sparseness of the Milky Way periphery where a collision with a large enough deterrent for such a speedy object is extremely unlikely.”

“Do you think, then that we simply didn’t account for everything in our calculation, Professor?”

“Undoubtedly!”

“We have studied the equations for years. What variable could we have overlooked.”

“It’s not what we overlooked, Mr. Anders, but rather what we couldn’t calculate.”

Joram tilted his head and looked Zimmer squarely in the face.

“While I feel confident that no major collisions have occurred, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the comet hasn’t had some resistance to its orbit from space dust, rocks or other small sized asteroids from nearby star systems.”

“Of course!” Anders stated loud enough to obtain the attention of several field correspondents seated around the group. It was so obvious that he wondered why he hadn’t thought about it himself. His face flushed as Kath scowled at him for his irreverence. Leaning closer to the professor, he regained himself. “But, Professor, if these minor collisions could slow down the comet and cause a delay, couldn’t they also impact its course?”

“Certainly, but I don’t believe that it will be significant. Work the numbers, if it will satisfy you. A thirty minute delay is only 5 ten millionths of the entire orbit. Even if we wait several hours, the change is miniscule. I suspect the same will be true of the orbit.”

After a moment of silence, Anders continued. “Professor, I’ve been concerned about—”

Joram was interrupted by a raised hand of Professor Zimmer, who leaned forward in his seat as if to obtain a better view of the Mission Control floor below. A certain level of bustling ensued with some shifting in seats, and a couple of engineers stood and rushed about to various workstations.

Several more engineers stood as the main video display began processing the clear path of the superluminal comet, significantly closer to Jupiter than previously anticipated.

Several chattering voices were heard, but above the din, a voice of the mission control commander came from the back of the control room floor. “Trajectory team, please adjust calculations of comet’s orbit and upload immediately to ST3. Comm, please notify ST3 that we have received confirmation of the comet and that once the onboard computer has adjusted its trajectory assignment, they are to proceed immediately to rendezvous. Congratulations, Team! ST3 hyper-warp phase begins now.”

Kath enthusiastically embraced Joram and went to plant a kiss on his cheek, when she noticed his ashen complexion. “Joram?” she asked wrinkling her forehead in confusion.

Joram responded by shaking his head in confusion with a shrug of the shoulders. He turned to Zimmer to notice a similarly fallen countenance. “Professor, I’m worried about—”

Zimmer shot a knowing wide-eyed glance at Anders along with a rapid, yet subtle shake of the head. “Not here, Joram.”

Kath squeezed Joram’s hand for his attention. He turned and leaned towards her ear. “I hope I’m wrong, Kath. We’ll need to do some thorough reviews and crunch some big numbers, but there may be a chance that—”

“Mr. Anders! Not—here!” Zimmer’s voice was soft enough to not be heard above the chatter of the room, but was as stern as Joram had ever remembered. He stopped short, and began to comprehend that his mentor was absolutely right. Being overheard in this group of individuals could prove detrimental.



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