The Orthogonal Galaxy

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Chapter 27

“There she is again,” exclaimed Blade, “just comin’ over the horizon.”

“Yeah, I see her,” Paol’s jaw dropped. “What a show!”

Paol Joonter and Blade Slater had already spent several days hugging the surface of Jupiter while waiting out for their ride to Earth2, and yet they certainly had not tired from the celestial show they were enjoying. They found Jupiter to be simply mind-boggling as they closed in on it. The radiant colors, and turbulent cloud patterns provided an eerie, almost frightening backdrop, as if the planet was trying to swallow the tiny Star Transport into its violent atmosphere. They had also been able to see all four of the Galilean moons, each so vastly different in appearance. Now, while they hovered above the wavy equatorial clouds of Jupiter, they could see two of Jupiter’s moons simultaneously.

They had already been enjoying the view of Callisto directly overhead. When he first saw the moon up close as the vehicle approached Jupiter, Paol was stunned to find that it looked like an inhabited planet due to the appearance of city lights scattered all over the otherwise dark and ruddy surface of the satellite. Even after Blade had explained to him that the bright white spots on Callisto were nothing more than fields of ice at relatively higher elevations, he still found it eerie to look upon and imagine civilization on such a small, remote, and frozen moon.

With Callisto perched high above the domed ceiling of Star Transport, Europa now began its rise above the Jovian horizon. In stark contrast to the dark regions of Callisto, Europa is covered by a light, deep permafrost. With the appearance of dirty snow the surface is mingled with a dusty brown crust and watery ice. What really distinguishes Europa, however, is the deep brown lines scattering along the face of the planet in all different directions, as if the surface had been clawed by a very large cat. Neither Paol nor Blade could conceive of the violent geologic forces at work to cause this vast scarring all over the face of the moon.

“You know, Blade,” said Paol in awestruck wonder, “We’ve seen four pretty amazing and starkly different moons here around Jupiter. After we travel the circumference of the Milky Way on this mission, I can’t help but think that it would be a walk in the park to come explore the moons of Jupiter after we get back home.”

“Ah that would be somethin’, Paol. I don’t know if they’d let us have a go at it though. They’ve been talkin’ up the Magellan mission fo’ years, where they send off astronauts to explore and map the Solar System. It always comes back to a price tag that Washington won’t pay fo’.”

“It seems likely,” Paol mused, “that if this mission succeeds, it will open up a whole world of possibilities. It would prove that if interstellar travel is possible, then intrastellar exploration would certainly be a safe proposition, and would look like pocket change compared to the costs of this mission.”

“Well,” Blade snorted. “I thinks we first need to cross this bridge befo’ we can comes to the next one.”

“Agreed. I guess I’ll just sit back and enjoy the show.” Paol reclined his seat and clasped his hands behind his head, enjoying the view of Callisto overhead with Europa straight ahead and the dominating surface of Jupiter to the left.

A series of chimes pulled the astronauts back to the mission at hand.

“Message from: Mission Control,” Blade read the display. “Let’s haves a looksy shall we, Partna’?”

Paol remained in his position of repose. “What’s it say, Blade?”

Blade read the display. “It says, ‘Show time, boys! The superluminal comet passed by at oh-eight hundred six hours. While its approach was later and nearer to Jupiter than anticipated, we have ascertained that the mission is a ‘Go’ for hyper-warp phase. Please ensure that data set 13009 is uploaded, configured, and operational before proceeding to rendezvous with the yellow beam. This is the final communication from Mission Control until you emerge from superluminal speed on your return to Earth1. Please confirm message and proceed with mission. Godspeed, gentlemen!’”

Paol quickly pulled out of his dreamy enjoyment of the celestial view around him, and became austere and business-like. “Navigator, please respond affirmatively to the message from Mission Control. I will work on installing the 13009 patch to the computer for correct navigation to the comet tail.”

Paol worked the control panel in front of him furiously and efficiently as Blade typed and sent his response to Earth1. As Blade sat back in his seat, Paol also paused briefly and turned to his partner.

“This is the moment we’ve been waiting for, Blade. Are you ready for this?”

“There’s no backin’ out now, Cap’n.”

The two reached out and clasped each other by the right hand in a tight grip. With intensity, they stared deeply into each other’s faces, both attempting to assess the readiness of the other. Without further need for words, the moment sealed their intent to do everything possible to proceed with the mission and succeed. They could read the expression on each other’s face and realized that they could strictly rely on the loyalty of the other from this precise moment in time to the day they step back onto Earth1, over twelve years in the future.

Turning back to the display, Paol and Blade silently read, “13009: Installed & Functional!”

“Full speed ahead, Cap’n,” Blade confirmed. “Full speed ahead.”

In an instant, the Star Transport accelerated through its final orbit of Jupiter. The computer had assumed full navigational control via the 13009 data set, and as a result, Paol and Blade only needed to sit back and enjoy the ride.

After about a half hour of travel, Star Transport had locked its course directly for the path of the superluminal comet. Paol squinted at the video display for signs of anything out of the ordinary.

“Ain’t gonna work, ya’ know,” Blade guessed Paol’s thoughts.

“What’s that?” Paol inquired.

“You tryin’ to stare down the path of the comet. You know that thing has left the solar system already.”

“Yes.”

“And ya’ also know that our ride is currently travelin’ faster than the speed of light, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, there ain’t no use tryin’ to see it. It’s out there alright, but we ain’t gonna be seein’ it. It's gonna be a few Earth1 days befo’ any of the dust from that thing slows down enough to be seen.”

“I know, I know,” Paol sighed. “It’s just that it’s hard to have confidence in something you can’t see.”

Blade attempted to convince his counter-part, “But Earth-based astronomy could sees the comet path through non-visual radiation, right? We don’t have to see it with our own two eyes if somethin’ else detected it with certainty.”

“But what if the calculation of the path was wrong? I mean, space is so vast out here that we’re trying to find a very thin line of the comet’s path. If the calculations are off at all, we won’t be able to intersect such a thin object. It would be like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Paol stared blankly at his companion.

“At night.”

Still no response.

“Blindfolded.”

“So,” Blade replied, “You’re sayin’ ya’ don’t believe NASA? They’s confident that they caught the path, and they’s given us data set 13009 to make sure that we intersect it.”

“I understand that they are confident,” Paol responded. “All I’m saying is that if I could see the darned object, I’d be able to know for myself.”

Blade sighed and spoke softly, “Therefore we are always confident, for we walk by faith, not by sight.”

“What?” Paol asked looking directly over at his navigator, to see a contemplative look on his face.

Blade turned to gain eye contact with Paol. “It’s from the apostle Paul. The very same who said ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ Ya’ see, Paol, what the apostle understood is that you can actually believe in things without seein’ ‘em. There’s been billions who believed that God was their Creator, and they ain’t seen Him either.”

“You see, I just don’t understand that… why do they believe something they can’t see?”

“Didn’t I just answer that question?” Blade responded waving his hands in great animation. “It’s faith, man… faith.”

Paol was clearly unimpressed.

“Look, Paol, faith’s really the drivin’ motivation fer everythin’ in life. When the Sun sets in the evenin’, you don’t worry ‘bout it gettin’ dark fo’ever. Ya’ have faith the Sun will rise in the mornin’. When you see that Sun, ya’ get outta bed, and go into the office, ‘cuz ya’ have faith that you’ll close that big business deal that will provide fo’ yer family.”

“But, that’s different, Blade. I have faith in those things, because I know they will work. They worked in the past, they can work again in the future. Religious faith is so much different.”

“Is it, now?” Blade raised his eyebrows as he stared piercingly at his companion. “The faith you talk ‘bout is based on evidence of yer experiences in life. Religious faith ain’t so different. In fact, Paul used the word evidence—evidence that there’s a supreme Creator who guides and directs yer life—evidence that miracles happen even today. We may not read ‘bout lepers gettin’ healed, or people walkin’ on water, or water turnin’ to wine, but in the day to day life of millions who’s developed faith, they’ll tell ya’ that they’ve seen miracles in their lives.”

“Have you, Blade?” Paol inquired softly. “Have you seen miracles in your life?”

“Why—of all the people to ask the question, I’d expect you to be the last, Paol. You know more ‘bout my life than any other person on Earth1, but let’s review anyway. A black boy’s born in an inner city ghetto, gets no decent education, has little support of family, and little future to speak of. He robs a bank, shoots an officer, and finds himself servin’ hard time, all befo’ becomin’ an adult. Where’s that black boy today? He’s a world famous astronaut with a well-rounded, self-taught education on the most historic and audacious space mission ever attempted. Some may look on that as a coincidence, but as fo’ that black boy himself, he sees it as a true miracle, Paol—a true miracle.”

Paol sat for a moment in silence, contemplating these last words, but persisted in his skepticism. “What about my life, Blade? What miracles have there been in my life? I was wrongly accused of a crime I did not commit, separated from my family, sentenced to life in prison, and as a result my life was ruined due to a legal technicality.”

Blade turned his head away from Paol and stared out at the vast collection of stars. Paol could see focused concentration on his face during the intent silence. At last, he spoke softly, yet confidently. “Purpose—,” he hung on the word to make sure Paol would understand, “isn’t always seen through the windshield, but often through the rear view mirror.”

Paol squinted and drew his lips into a tight line. He laid his head on the back of his seat and closed his eyes. He wasn’t sure what to think. Could there be a purpose in all of this? Purpose to the injustices he and his family had suffered? The only purpose he could see in being separated from his family and risking his life was to appease the curiosity of his fellow man, who had been seeking extra-terrestrial intelligence for many generations. It all seemed so unnecessary.

“Cap’n, we’ve reached maximum velocity.” Small beads of sweat betrayed Blade’s anxiety. Wide eyes formed large white circles, as Blade focused on the navigational display ahead of him.

“Well, Blade, here we go, then,” Paol stated with a deep breath. “Proceed to ease us into the path of the comet.”

The Star Transport was traveling at maximum velocity in the direction of the comet’s path exactly parallel to its orbit. Astronauts Joonter and Slater had officially begun the ‘suicide’ part of their mission. All knew that the most dangerous aspect of the mission was to insert themselves into the path of the comet, where debris shed from the superluminal rock was traveling at tens of thousands of times faster than the speed of light. Although microscopic is size, these tiny particles would soon slam into the back of the Star Transport and propel the vehicle on its course towards Earth2—if all went well. If it didn’t go so well, these tiny particles would penetrate the Star Shield, the Star Transport, and the pair of defenseless astronauts.

Their hearts were racing in quiet apprehension as the displays ahead of them showed a model of Star Transport easing closer to a yellow line, representing the path of travel of the comet. In due course, they received their first impact sensor detection.

“Right topside wing impact,” Blade indicated. “Zero point six seven five warp. Sensor function normal. No aberrations in systems.”

“Looks like your faith in NASA’s faith was well-founded after all, Mr. Slater. We are certainly in the neighborhood of our ride.”

Whether Blade actually heard this or not, Paol could not know. Certainly, Blade didn’t acknowledge the statement, either because of his intense focus, or because he simply had nothing to say in response to being right on his belief that data set 13009 would provide the correct coordinates for their rendezvous.

“Another right topside wing. Zero point six seven five warp.”

“Where are we to the galactic plane, Blade?”

“Pretty much dead center.”

“Hmmm… let’s stay the course. We’ve received two topside impacts. Makes me suspect that the comet tail may be slightly above the galactic plane, but we need more details to extrapolate correctly.”

“How ‘bout this one: right topside… uh… make that two right wing topsides. Zero point six seven six warp.”

“Ease us up out of the galactic plane, Blade. We need the particles to hit us straight on, or we may get pushed right out of the path. Let’s correct the heading for direct parallel travel as well. I want to get enough of these rare impact events to help us stabilize a more parallel entry to the beam.”

“Yes, sir… I’m correctin’ the headin’ by plus zero zero three five. I also have two more topside wing impacts, and one topside fuselage. All sensors and systems still functional.”

Blade and Paol worked on course correction for an hour—longer than they had hoped to, but they eventually found the orbital plane of the comet to be slightly elevated above the plane of the Milky Way, by about fourteen thousand miles. While NASA was able to detect the radiation impact of the comet’s fly-by, all they could use to calculate the trajectory was the single event as registered around the world’s ground-spaced telescopes as well as the instruments orbiting the Earth, Moon and Mars. They quickly calculated an estimated trajectory, which proved accurate enough to ballpark, but not precise enough to give an exact orbit. Rough calculations of the comet’s orbit were calculated at four thousand miles above the galactic plane, plus or minus twenty thousand miles. The calculation proved to be about ten thousand miles off, but was close enough to give Star Transport enough high-speed particle impact data to allow it to correct its course.

Once they had received a direct particle impact rate of 98%, they began to steer the ship once again towards the center of the beam, where the extremely high-speed particles would propel them towards their destination. Soon, the spaceship was being peppered by particles of comet powder at the rate of several hundred per minute. They watched the data eagerly: rate of impact, average direction of impact, maximum speed of impact, sensor health. No detail was missed by the pair, as they began to immerse themselves into the comet’s path. Their minds raced, and both thought frequently about the last time NASA attempted to inject man-made objects into the yellow beam several years ago. At the end of the experiment, the comet tail managed to pulverize all twelve paddles that were injected into the stream. Now, these two clung to the hope that NASA got it right in creating an experiment which would not prove to be the thirteenth fatal failure against the violent nature of the comet. Paol and Blade had to admit that so far, everything was going according to plan. The Star Transport had made its way deeper into the beam than before, although the tension was only growing greater as they watched the speed of impact grow.

Blade broke a rather tense moment of silence, pointing to the display. “Looks like the maximum impact speed is nearin’ the speed of light, Paol.”

Paol swallowed hard. “Zero point nine two warp.”

The astronauts stared at the display watching this rate increase slowly and steadily: 0.93… 0.94… 0.95.

“How you feeling, Buddy?” Paol looked over at his companion, who was looking a bit pale.

“So far, so good, Partna’, but we’ve got a long way to go to reach our ultimate velocity, and this tin can is shakin’ more than I’d like it to. If it continues to rattle like this, I don’t think the thing’s gonna stay together at twenty-seven thousand times the speed of light.”

“You know—”, Paol began.

When Blade discerned that Paol would not finish the sentence, he quipped, “Nope… can’t say I do know… especially since I don’t know what you’re thinkin’ I know.”

Paol gave a slight smile of appreciation for Blade’s attempted wisecrack in this most tense of situations.

“I was just thinking out loud—it’s nothing really.”

“Now, go on… tell me whatcha thinkin’ ‘bout.”

“I was just wondering if we should turn this ship around. I really agree with you—this thing can’t take the beating it’s going to receive, can it?”

“Paol!” Blade exclaimed in disappointment. “Don’t even tell me you’re serious ‘bout that. Why, just exactly whatcha think NASA is goin’ to say when we tell them that we’ve done chickened out on their multi-billion dollar mission. D’ya think the President’ll pardon us still? Besides… how would ya’ be able to live with ya’self, knowin’ that ya’ backed out.”

“I’d live with myself better if I were alive, Blade.”

“You really believe that? C’mon, Paol. You know we gotta do this. We can’t back out fo’ no reason. We accepted it. We trained fer it. We live by it… and maybe—but hopefully not—we die by it.”

Paol grew agitated. “You fool!” He shouted. “You’d rather kill yourself over a principle than accept defeat?”

“Defeat! Who says we’ve been defeated? Nothin’ but yer cowardice, Joonter. Fo’ someone who knows so much ‘bout science and business, please tell me how you missed so much ‘bout principles and life. This thing, Paol—it’s bigger than you or me. We were born, and someday we’ll die. After you’re long gone, who’s gonna care ‘bout yer pittance of a life and the successful business ya’ built up. Earth1 will keep on spinnin’, people will keep on livin’, and you’ll just be six feet under the ground. What purpose will yer life have if ya’ selfishly live it fo’ yerself. You have the opportunity to do somethin’ great—somethin’ very, very few people get the chance to do. Whether ya’ live to return to Earth1 or not, yer legacy will be better served by yer tryin’ this mission instead of slinkin’ back home to some prison cell, while ya’ hope that yer lawyer comes up with some way of gettin’ ya’ back to yer no-purpose existence of closin’ business deals and inventin’ stuff that nobody really needs in the first place. Big deal. Others would do it if you’s never born anyway. This here—this is what I call livin’. And if I die doin’ it? So be it. At least people will remember Blade Slater as the first person to attempt warp-speed travel. Others will be inspired, follow perhaps in my footsteps, until they succeed at it. Now that is livin’ to me.”

Paol grew sullen, but undeterred. He spoke quietly, but firmly. “Blade, listen to reason. The Star Transport is getting a very violent treatment. You can feel the pounding we are getting.” Paol pointed to the sensor impact display. “Zero point nine eight warp. We’re only facing the beginning of the storm with particles hitting us at zero point nine eight warp. The vehicle will not be able to hold together when we get bombarded with particles traveling five orders of magnitude greater. Don’t you think we can provide more data to NASA if we return the ship in one piece? The engineers will be able to analyze the data and beef up the ship for a more successful run at it.”

Blade bowed his head and closed his eyes. Remaining in this position, he finally answered his partner. “I’m hearin’ ya’ loud and clear, Paol. And, what I’m hearin’ and realizin’ is that yer heart’s just not in this thing.” He looked up into Paol’s face. “I do think the mission is a failure, but mainly because the mission can’t affo’d doubt—it can’t affo’d self-absorbed fear. If this was goin’ to work, it was gonna do it by an unflinchin’ resolve on both our parts. Do I feel the ship heavin’? Do I feel it shakin’? Yeah, I do. But, I also look at the data in front of me, and I see that we ain’t lost a single system yet. Not a single sensor failed. I think we don’t know exactly what this ship is capable of. We’re almost in the portion of the tail that is strictly goin’ faster than the speed of light. I say if we really want NASA to have the data it will need to make the next mission a success, then we need to wait until the max—no—until the average impact is one point zero zero warp. At that point we’ll—”

Blade stopped dead in his tracks. He lifted his head up, whirled it around to the right, to the left. His eyes widened. He glanced back over at Paol, and saw Paol clutching his seat with a dead-ahead stare that sent chills down his spine.

“Paol, d’ya see it too?!”

“Red… everything… is red.”

“Yeah, I know, but why?” Blade blinked rapidly. Red still. He squinted. Red. He rubbed his eyes briskly with the palms of his hands. Red. Everything was still visible, but it was all cast in a deep red. The video displays, the cockpit lights, his pilot. Everything was red.

Finally, a bright red flash took both astronauts by surprised, forcing their eyes shut. Both men held their hands tightly over their eyes. Blade laid his head back against his seat, while Paol had leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and hands still covering his eyes.

They remained in this position, not daring to peek, not daring to move. The violent heaving of the Star Transport and the bright red glare left them helpless. They were now at the mercy of the debris that was propelling them forward. For a couple of minutes, both astronauts had resigned themselves to certain calamity, when suddenly, the violent shaking ceased, and a quiet calm overcame the cockpit.

Paol was the first to move a muscle. Lifting his head slowly, he removed his right hand from his face and opened his eyelid to just a thin slit. He saw no red and risked opening his eye all the way. Everything looked normal. He opened both eyes and looked all around him. He saw Blade with his head back and his eyes covered.

“Uh, Blade… I think it’s safe to open your eyes again.”

Blade slowly pulled his hands away from his eyes but left them against his temple to form a small tunnel through which he could look while keeping his eyes shielded.

“Well that was strange,” he admitted while folding his hands in his lap. His head still lay back against the seat, as he dared not move, fearing that it would disrupt the delicate equilibrium between normality and redness. While sitting in this repose for quite some time, he heard a gasp from Paol.

“I don’t believe it!” Paol exclaimed.

“What is it, Cap’n,” Blade looked over.

“If the data is to be believed, we are being impacted by particles traveling twelve hundred times the speed of light. And Star Transport herself is now traveling at zero point nine seven warp.”

“Look here, Paol. Take a look at this chart. It shows our velocity relative to our time. Right here—about one minute ago, ya’ see our acceleration had been pretty linear, but then ya’ see this sharp turn, and our speed increased severely in just a few seconds. I’m guessin’ this was around the time everythin’ went red. After the sharp rise, there’s another significant bend in the curve right here, where the acceleration settled back down. It looks like the ship wanted to be launched into superluminal velocity, but hit the ceilin’ just below the speed of light.”

“Can you overlay that with the particle impact speed?”

Both astronauts gasped when they recognized the correlation. The moment where the acceleration curve turned sharply upward was the precise moment the impact sensors measured their first 1.0 warp particle impact.

“Whatcha make of it, Paol?” Blade inquired.

“I don’t know, but it looks like even the tiniest of warp-speed particles packs a real big punch, don’t you think? For us to be vaulted from just over zero point five warp to zero point nine seven warp in a heartbeat indicates that the power of the warp speed particles is something far greater than we can imagine.”

“If that’s so,” thought Blade, “then why’d the propulsion seem to end at zero point nine seven.”

Paol’s voice grew more excited as he brainstormed through ideas about what they were experiencing. “It actually looks like it stopped around zero point nine six. We’re still accelerating, just more slowly. I’m thinking that we’ve hit some physical barrier that is making it difficult on the particles to push us past the speed of light, even with all of their might.”

Blade’s hands typed quickly on a pair of touch screen panels. Another graph emerged. “And how d’ya account fo’ this?”

Paol frowned and wrinkled up his forehead. “This graph is curious. If I’m reading this correctly, then right up to the point where we had our first warp-speed impact, we were slowly going deeper into the tail of the comet. As we did so, the particle speed increased pretty linearly. But right when we reach the warp speed boundary, the particle impact speed quickly jumped from one point zero zero to 1203 warp almost instantaneously. Where are all of the particles in between?”

“Could there be some dead zone where particles can’t travel? Perhaps once ya’ hit the speed of light, there’s a quantum step up to twelve hundred?”

“I don’t know, Blade. I just don’t know.”

“Well, this superluminal physics is all new science, Paol. The next generation of scientists are gonna eat up this data. Shall we head back and give it to them? What are yer orders, Cap’n?” Blade stared eagerly into Paol’s face.

Paol’s fear was replaced with renewed enthusiasm at these fascinating discoveries. “What are you talking about, Slater! Go back? Now? And miss out on all of the scientific discoveries we’re about to become famous for? Besides, can’t you feel our ride? It’s never been smoother. I don’t have a clue as to why we aren’t being ripped apart by the violence of the particles, but I’m not one to be ungrateful for not being pulverized. Hold the course steady, Navigator. This mission is just getting started.”

Blade’s heart leapt and a broad smile grew on his face, as he leaned back and watched the Star Transport on its path towards Earth2.

“Zero point nine nine, Cap’n,” was the report from the navigator.

“It looks like we’re going to get there after all, Blade. I just zoomed in on the vehicle velocity chart, and it’s definitely not asymptotic to warp speed. The projections indicate that we’ll reach the speed of light in about two minutes.”

“Paol?”

“Yes, Blade.”

“D’ya think we’ll be makin’ that leap from 1.00 warp to twelve hundred warp?”

“I don’t know… it’s as possible as anything, I suppose.”

“D’ya think the Star Transport will be able to handle that sort of velocity transfo’mation? I mean a particle of dust is already… well… a particle of dust. What if warp speed only pertains to the realm of atomics? Couldn’t we also be transfo’med into independent dust molecules when we make the leap?”

“Maybe so, but if I know you, you won’t be content not knowing, right?” Paol had a twinkle in his eye as he smiled at Blade.

“Oh, the lost sleep!” Blade blurted playfully. “I thinks we’ve just gotta forge ahead, come what may, or I’ll never rest again wonderin’ what could’a happened.”

“That’s what I thought,” Paol nodded. “Zero point nine nine five. We’re only traveling about one thousand miles per second, or about three and a half million miles per hour less than the speed of light now.”

“When ya’ say it that way, it doesn’t exactly seem imminent, does it?” Blade shook his head.

“And yet the computer calculates that we’re less than a minute away now.”

Both astronauts held their breath, as hearts pounded relentlessly, knees bounced nervously, and remaining bits of finger nail chattered noisily through teeth. Their eyes barely blinked as they focused on the display: 0.995… 0.996… 0.997. Mercilessly, it seemed that the anxiety would never end, as the display hung onto 0.999, until long after the anticipated event should’ve happened.

“Ya’ thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’, Partna’?” Blade spoke softly.

“Now, let’s be patient, Blade. I know we had expected to be at one point zero zero warp by now, but maybe it’ll just take a little longer.”

“I don’t think there’s gonna be a one point zero zero, Paol. I thinks we’ve reached our physical maximum.”

Paol slammed his right fist into his left palm. “No! I don’t accept it. Just a little longer, Blade. It would be too anti-climactic to not hit warp speed. Besides, if the comet tail particles can do it, then there’s no reason why Star Transport can’t.”

“I don’t know, Paol… maybe it’s entirely different material all together. Anti-matter? Dark energy? Who knows? Maybe the subatomic makeup of that stuff out there’s ever so different than the raw material found on Earth, from which you and I and this ship’s made up of.”

Paol’s fist pounded on the display in fury. “No, No, NO!”

Zero point nine nine eight.

“Blade, steer us farther into the beam, will you? We need to get to the deepest part, where the fastest material will certainly push us over the threshold. We’re only getting pushed at 10K warp. We know that the fastest stuff will be going nearly 30K, so I think we just need to push deeper in.”

Blade feverishly worked the navigational controls for a couple of minutes, and eventually confessed. “Can’t do it, Cap’n.”

“What?! Why not?”

“All nav systems are on automatic control, and I can’t get it into manual?”

“Why not? Is the manual control system damaged?”

“Dontcha remember, Paol? Once we start comin’ outta the beam, the computer takes over. It’s a failsafe mechanism that NASA employed, in case the effects of superluminal travel incapacitated us to the degree of not bein’ able to fly the ship properly.”

“Ugh! Stupid engineers! Did they not think that perhaps we would be lucid enough to need to fly the blasted ship on our own? What idiots! We’ve got to override the system somehow, Blade. When we come out of the beam, we’re going to be nowhere near Earth2 for the computer to recognize the celestial signature. What will the computer do to try to get us to Earth2?”

“I think the abort sequence’ll kick in. The computer will not recognize the star signature fer Earth2, so it will look fo’ the signature fer Earth1, at which point it will calculate our trajectory back home.”

Paol’s face grew red with anger. “We were this close, Blade!”

“Yes, but there’s no shame in goin’ home now, Paol. The ship aborted the sequence, not us. And we will have lots of data to provide. I’m guessin’ if it’s at all possible, another mission will launch durin’ the next pass of the comet.”

“Geez… that’s another six years to wait, Blade.”

“A small moment in time, compared to the history of man.”

After a brief pause, Blade saw Paol’s face grow even more red.

“Blade! Close your eyes.”

Instantly, Blade realized that everything was growing red as before. Both astronauts tightly closed their eyes and covered their hands over them to avoid another red flash.

“Paol… d’ya think we’re makin’ the leap to warp after all?”

“Alas, no… I think we’re coming back out of the quiet zone of the comet tail. As soon as we feel the choppiness return, I think it will be safe to open our eyes, at which point we’ll see the current impact speed will be something less than one point zero warp.”

Shortly, both astronauts felt a sharp jolt and a return to the violent shaking of the vehicle that had been a concern before. Slowly, they both opened their eyes, and saw the current average impact speed at 0.99 warp. As expected, they were leaving the path of the beam, and would shortly be on their way back to Earth1.

“Well, buddy, looks like a fairly anti-climactic mission, huh?” Paol reached over and placed his right hand on Blade’s left arm.

“Yeah. There goes any hope of this story bein’ written down fo’ the ages.”

“I don’t know,” Paol said wryly. “Authors can find ways to write about anything. I suppose there’ll be somebody out there desperate enough for a gig to write our tale.”

Blade chuckled. “I feel fo’ the poor sap who gives up his day job to write ‘bout us.”

The pair laughed nervously about their situation, but deep down, the disappointment could not be assuaged.

Paol and Blade sat sullen and reflective. Since Star Transport’s computerized navigation system had full control of the vehicle, there wasn’t much else either could do, except wait out the ride. Their thoughts went a million miles a minute, as they reflected back on the many experiences they shared together: the prison cell, the astronaut training, the sublime views of Earth and Jupiter along with their moons as well as the stars and asteroids.

Neither could help feeling the depressive anti-climax of the situation, but they also felt the privilege of the opportunity, and yet both felt guilt and shame for secretly contemplating their future. How would they be integrated back into Earth life, and what directions would their lives lead there? Wouldn’t this provide them the easiest way out of the difficult situation? Of course, Blade’s prison sentence had long since past, but would Paol still be pardoned, or would he return to penitentiary? Would they be anticipated with the same heroic fanfare with which they left Earth just a few weeks earlier, or would they be ostracized and seen as the symbols of failure for a mission that cost too much and never should have been attempted? Would they continue to pursue their new careers as astronauts, and perhaps even attempt another ST mission to explore and map the solar system, or perhaps to even make another go at Earth2 six years from now?

Paol tried to distract himself by studying the stars overhead. He had become so used to the sky above him when they journeyed from the Moon to Jupiter, but everything looked so differently now that they were heading in the opposite direction. Frankly, he didn’t know exactly how far away they were now either, considering that they had been propelled quite a way down the beam before they were ejected from the stream of particles.

Through this train of thought, his stomach dropped. How far had they come indeed? How long would it take them to return to Earth? For some time, they had been traveling nearly the speed of light, and this was taking them very quickly away from their home. Certainly, they must first send a communication to Earth. Once they received a response, they would be able to time their distance to the Earth by the round trip time of the communication. That way, they could calculate whether they would have enough fuel to race straight to Earth at full speed, or whether an emergency mission would need to be launched to reclaim the Star Transport in a reasonable timeframe.

As he began to turn to Blade to ask him to relay a message to Earth, he was interrupted by the voice of his companion.

“Cap’n,” started Blade softly. “I’m not sure I understand what I’m seein’ here.”

Paol looked down at the display to which Blade was pointing. It read: “Celestial reading locked, trajectory to Earth2 calculated.”

“Blade, when did you first see this?” Paol asked in dismay. “Something must be wrong.”

“Just now, Paol. Why I’s just starin’ off into space, and I saw this display flashin’. When I touched it to acknowledge the message, well… this is what it said. Whatcha make of it, Partna’?”

“Somehow, this hunk of junk thinks it has found a pattern in the stars that matches the Earth2 region of the Milky Way. But, it should’ve found Earth1 instead.”

Paol started typing on one of the displays. Instantly, it provided a map of the galaxy. It pinpointed Earth1 and Earth2 on far extremes of the display. The Star Transport was represented by a green dot extremely close to Earth2!

“Oh, my... oh, my!” Blade exclaimed nervously. “Why didn’t I thinks of this befo’? Stupid, stupid!”

Joonter looked over to see his navigator taking his seat harness off and leaning towards the edge of his seat. His hands trembled violently as they fumbled on the touchscreen panel ahead of him.

“What is it, Blade?” Paol spoke quietly, almost daring not to ask for fear of the answer.

Paol stared intently at his companion as he threw himself back in his seat and started laughing uncontrollably.

“What are you laughing at?!” Paol exclaimed. “Star Transport is thoroughly confused about our location, and you’re laughing? I’m not sure you understand the gravity of our situation, Blade. Unless this thing can be convinced of its error, we might just float in space forever!”

“Doncha see?” Blade looked at his partner incredulously. “Wasn’t we supposed to fall asleep when we hit warp speed?”

“Yes, but we didn’t.” Paol answered simply. “Instead, we fell out of the beam at zero point nine—” He stopped short. “Wait... are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?”

“How would ya’ know if ya’ fall asleep if you’re asleep the whole time?”

“Blade, don’t be so ridiculous. When I wake up in the morning, I know that I fell asleep the night before.” Paol’s voice hinted of agitation.

“Sure enough. But that’s sleep sleep. This wasn’t exactly the same. Instead of sleeping, we were in some sort of suspended animation. Dontcha remember? They told us that everythin’ was supposed to just stop?”

Paol grew wide-eyed. “Blade! If that’s so, then the only way we came out of the beam, was when the nuclear expulsion device propelled us away from the beam. What’s the status of the nuclear systems?”

Blade turned his head towards Paol with a jubilant look on his face. Pointing to the screen ahead of him, he said, “Looks fo’ ya’self, Partna’.”

Joonter read the display. “Nuclear Expulsion System #1: Detonated. Nuclear Expulsion System #2: Pending. This means the system to get us to Earth2 has gone off, and the system to get us back to Earth1 is still waiting for our return trip!”

“So we really have been out of it for a year now?” Paul asked.

Denial turned to disbelief and disbelief to doubt. As the situation slowly dawned on the two space travelers, they began to realize that they had just come through the beam, twenty-seven thousand light years away from Earth1 after all, and never even realized it until now. They had slept through the whole thing, and not a thing had gone wrong with the mission as they had supposed.

“Can you look at the rest of the list for any system abnormalities, Blade? How’s the general health of the ship after coming through the heart of the beam?”

“It looks like we got three impact sensor failures: two on the right wing and one on the tail stabilizers. All other systems are reportin’ normal status.”

“Not bad,” Paol smiled. “This thing really held up better than anybody could’ve hoped for. We will need to inspect those three failures and any other body damage in general. We may need to patch some holes in the Star Shield before heading back to Earth1, but with just three failures out of thousands of sensors, I’m feeling pretty good about our trip home.”

“What’s our ETA to Earth2, Cap’n.” Blade asked.

Paol looked at a display to his left and reported his findings. “About 137 hours. We’ll be there in less than 6 days, since the beam gave us such a nice boost. We’re still traveling at warp zero point eight three.”

Blade leaned forward and stared into the video display looking for any indication of a blue-green planet in the distance. He saw two red circles flash on the display.

“Is that what you were looking for?” Paol asked. “There’s Earth2, although we only see a sliver of light, since we’re largely on its dark side, but over here is Sun2, already the brightest object in the sky.”

“We’re really doin’ this, ain’t we Paol? We’re really on our way now.”

They continued the journey with full smiles, giddy laughter, and more than a few tears of relief. Having survived the jump to hyper-warp speed and seeing their main target now almost plainly in sight, their confidence in the mission grew by leaps and bounds.

...

Six days later, as measured by their forced sleep cycles, they neared the planet and descended into orbit. Their eyes hurt as they strained to see details on Earth2. They wanted to pick up any clues as to the nature of this new planet. While it certainly looked exactly like the planet they had left so far away, their apprehensions grew as they wondered whether they would be entering a friendly or a hostile environment. Thoughts wandered through their minds. Would there be dinosaurs? Cavemen? Or was an advanced civilization ready to meet them? From this altitude, they could discern no signs of civilization, but this did not concern them, because they knew they were still too far away to recognize much of anything man made. The fact that they only had occasional glimpses through cloud layers complicated their observations.

They orbited several times as they tried to piece together the topography of the planet. Star Transport was continuously taking photos and mapping unclouded images to a map display on the main console of the cockpit. As shapes began to form, the astronauts were stunned at what they appeared to be discovering. Shapes that looked remarkably like the Horn of Africa, the Aleutian Islands, and the archipelago of Japan formed on the screen.

“I can’t believe it!” Paol responded increasing vehemence as the map grew to be more and more convincing of an exact copy of Earth.

“It doesn’t make no sense,” agreed Blade. “I mean with plate tectonics and all, whose gonna think that this planet would be in the same geographic phase as Earth? All the continents could be in totally different positions.”

“Well,” replied the captain shaking his head in disbelief, “the researchers did tell us that all indications was that Earth2 was as identical as possible to Earth1 in every way: distance from Sun, axial tilt, time of revolution and rotation, mass, temperature and composition. I still would not have imagined the same exact geographic makeup.”

“Looks like Florida just came into view,” Slater pointed to the map as both astronauts looked at the real-time imagery and noticed that the iconic North American feature was clearly outlined below them.

It took quite some time for the astronauts to adjust to the shocking reality that in almost every way, the geography of Earth2 was identical to Earth1. Eventually, it occurred to them that their mission was not to orbit for the next six years.

“So, where do you think we should land?” asked Paol. “Mission control gave us guidelines to land in a temperate zone, but even they did not know the continents would line up like this.”

Blade stroked his chin. He pondered the question seriously, knowing that in all likelihood, the decision would change the entire course of the mission. Thinking out loud, he said, “We don’t ‘xactly know how advanced this planet is. Could be, we’re just showin’ up at the dawn of civilization.”

“Um… I don’t think so, Partner,” Johannsen’s voice cracked with anticipation. “Just look for yourself.”

Slater focused his attention to the direction of Paol’s finger, and what he saw caused his eyes to grow wide with concern. “That looks a whole lot like farmin’ goin’ on down there.”

As Star Transport flew past the Mississippi River delta and up into the Midwest, they could see tiny squares with different shades of greens and browns.

“Well, that just solves it for us,” Blade announced firmly.

“What do you mean?”

“We should land in Kansas,” Blade pursed his lips and nodded fervently. “We’re gonna be lookin’ for hospitable. The Midwest is the place fo’ sure.”

“Ok, then,” Paol agreed with the assessment. “Let’s get this thing down to Kansas then. “Can you load the coordinates for us, Blade?”

“Yes, sir!” Blade zoomed in on the North America region of the map that was still being constructed by the computer, and registered a location in the Midwest that he believed would be close to the Heartland of Kansas.

It took several orbits of slow and turbulent descent before the Star Transport dipped below the highest cloud layers. On their final approach to North America, it felt like the Atlantic Ocean would go on forever. A stillness settled over the cabin, as both astronauts held their breath in anticipation.

“Down there!” Blade exclaimed in excitement as a line of tiny islands running from North to South indicated that they had reached the edge of the Caribbean Sea. At the speed they were traveling, Star Transport quickly passed by Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and Cuba before the familiar Florida coastline came into view once again. This time, they were low enough to spot something that convinced them of a modern society.

“Buildings,” Paol whistled lowly. “Looks like a pretty advanced civilization down there.”

Passing over the Gulf of Mexico and into the Southern States, they continued to see widespread evidence of a large population. As coastal communities gave way to small towns and farming communities, they began to realize with some trepidation that they would have to engage with a society of beings and stay as safe as possible for the next six years.

“I s’ppose this really is a parallel Earth,” Blade stated hesitantly.

Joonter hadn’t even heard his companion’s reply. As his eyes grew wide in recognition, he scanned the terrain below rapidly, almost frantically.

“Whatcha see, Paol?” Slater stared at his companion with deep interest.

“It’s not what I see, Blade! It’s what I don’t see. Take a look, that should be Atlanta right there.”

As they passed by the city, Slater looked for anything out of the ordinary, without success. Eventually, Joonter pointed out what Blade was missing.

“No roads!”

Blade Slater was aghast. “You’re right! How could there be cities with no roads connectin’ them?”

Paol Joonter breathed heavily and responded in between gasps. “I don’t know, Blade. I do not know. Maybe these are ancient civilizations that have no living intelligent life in them, and the roads have simply returned to their natural state.”

“Wouldn’t we still see some asphalt or some indication of roads? Indentions in the terrain? Somethin’?” inquired Slater doubtfully.

“I don’t know, Blade,” replied Paol, “but I suspect we’re about to find out.”

“D’ya wanna land down there, Cap’n, and have a look at Atlanta... –ish?”

“No,” answered the pilot simply. “Let’s go land in Kansas just like you suggested. I think you’re right that if there’s a civilization down there, our best bet for safety is in the Midwest.”

After plugging in the coordinates as best as Slater could estimate on the map, the Star Transport computer system calculated their trajectory to a landing site that was an as flat and indiscernible as any. It could be Kansas, Oklahoma, or Nebraska as far as either of them could tell. But it should be close enough for a hopefully successful start to their mission.

As the vehicle began a sharp descent towards a patchwork of farmland, they could tell that there was a thriving and active farming community. Their hearts leapt into their throats as they felt both intense excitement and a healthy anxiety for what they would discover. Regardless of the fact that missing roads were a red flag as to the condition of the civilization they were about to encounter, it was undeniable as they descended that these crops were being tended to. They were extremely well cultivated, and not the product of years of neglect, let alone the decades or centuries that would be required to erase roads from the ruins of cities.

Now more than ever, Paol and Blade worried whether these people would be friendly towards them or whether they would be advanced enough to understand war, greed, and distrust.

After a long quiet period of contemplation, they felt the reverse thrusters kick in, and the vehicle decelerated until it touched down with a vertical landing in the middle of a large field of dry wheat. The descent was so rapid that they could barely focus on their visual surroundings. Sentient beings were certainly engaged in farming, yet the complete lack of roads indicated a completely missing infrastructure and certain isolation between the farmers and the city dwellers of Earth2. At long last, Star Transport touched down softly, and everything came to a standstill, as the engines shut down quickly.

In the still quiet of the cockpit, labored breathing accompanied the astronauts as they looked straight into a field of wheat as tall as the Star Transport. The wheat swayed in a gentle breeze.

Neither astronaut was lost by the fact that they would eventually need to leave the vehicle and explore their surroundings, yet they felt glued to their seats with fear and anxiety.

Eventually, the tension was broken by Slater. “Oh, no!”

“What’s wrong, Blade?” Johannsen leaned towards his navigator with great concern.

Slapping his forehead, Blade replied, “I forgot to get a change of address form from the post office.”

The raucous laughter from Blade and a feigned sneer of disgust from his pilot bounced around the cockpit, while immediately outside of the Star Transport, a quieter atmosphere persisted. Birds chirped in the strong sunlight, while the sound of wheat swaying in the gentle breeze suggested that the astronauts had touched down on a peaceful planet vastly resemebling their own home world. As the superluminal comet raced away from them on its six-year orbit of the galaxy, they were optimistic that this would be a hospitable place to live as they waited for their ride back home.


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