“There it is, ladies and gentlemen,” Tristan announced. “Sag’Aa.”
The crew of the Starcrusher stared in awe at the sight presented to them on their monitor screens. It was possibly the most breathtaking sight in the entire galaxy, and although only a short trip beyond the Dynasty’s bounds, it was a place none of them had ever been, a place where the normal was not, a place where the everyday laws of physics did not apply, a place so totally other as to stir the psyche to its roots, a place of indescribable elemental power and deep, unspeakable terror.
All around, stars clustered thickly, swarming in a density seen nowhere else. Broad sweeping veils of glowing hydrogen and neon swirled about in a spectacular light show. A circular cosmic rainbow of almost dazzling intensity radiated outwards from the spine-chilling void of the black hole. The ship was speeding through an accretion disc of dust and gas as broad as the planetary system around a star. As she penetrated deeper, the Starcrusher was required ever more frequently to take evasive action to dodge the accumulation of rocky debris being sucked into the maelstrom.
The stars distorted as in a mirage around the edges of that tremendous nothing, a disc of utter blackness into which flowed an endless stream of matter, the particles of which collided constantly, generating the great plumes of Hawking radiation issuing from the poles of Sag’Aa. The black disc was the event horizon, also known as the Schwarzschild sphere, surrounding the infinitely dense singularity at its heart, for within the space bounded by the event horizon, not even light was able to escape, for it was said that God abhorred a naked singularity.
“Remind me again,” said Stith Karsh, as the black heart of the galaxy loomed ever larger on the ship’s screens. “What are we doing here?”
“You’re familiar with the concept of gravitational assist?” said Tristan.
“A small body, such as a ship, is able to get a boost from the gravitational field of a large body, such as a planet, greatly increasing its speed?”
“The slingshot effect,” said Tristan. “Exactly. Go to the top of the class. And the bigger the gravitational field, the greater the speed.”
“So we just loop around Sag’Aa, and we come flying back through Dynastic space like a bat out of hell and nab Aurangzhebb?”
“I haven’t quite worked out the last bit yet,” said Tristan, smiling, “but, yeah, that’s the theory.”
Stith Karsh stared at him. “I think you’re nuts,” he said. “Totally frigging nuts!”
Closer, closer all the time the Starcrusher drew to the event horizon, and her speed increased continually, already far beyond what her engines alone could achieve. As her navigational computer sought to resolve the conflicting commands of making manoeuvres to avoid collisions with house-sized pieces of rubble, now becoming intensely hot, and at the same time staying well clear of the event horizon, the vessel bucked and swerved like a wild animal.
And things were getting very strange. Looking at the aft monitors, the crew could see that the stars behind them appeared to have moved from their proper positions, and furthermore, their colours had shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum. In reality, it was not the stars that had changed but the ship, undergoing such phenomenal acceleration that to outside observers it would appear to have shifted to the red, its light taking so much longer to reach the eye.
With the Starcrusher now travelling at relativistic speeds, light became warped. Light that was actually coming from behind was distorted such that it appeared to be coming from in front. Visual cues from the monitors became treacherous. And the buffeting of stupendous gravitational forces and the torrent of infalling material shook the ship constantly.
“I don’t think this was such a good idea!” Stith Karsh shouted.
“Too late!” Tristan yelled back.
Then something changed, and changed radically. The whole universe appeared to swirl, stars suddenly set in motion took flight, becoming streaks, fleeing into the infinite distance, the dense spangled heavens swiftly fading to black as the billions of pinpoints of light winked out one by one, until there was nothing left but emptiness.
For a moment there was stunned silence on the bridge of the Starcrusher.
“What was that?” asked Stith Karsh. “What just happened?”
“What we just saw,” said Tristan softly, “was the end of the universe. Stars, galaxies, expanding outwards from one another until there’s nothing left. And from this perspective, it all happened in the blink of an eye.”
“From this perspective?”
“We crossed the Schwarzschild surface,” Tristan explained simply. “We are beyond the event horizon. Ladies and gentlemen, if you have any prayers, now would be a good time to say them.”
They were in a different space and time, beyond all norms. The spacetime distortion had resulted in them seeing the remaining history of the universe, the normal universe, out there, on the other side of the Schwarzschild boundary, fantastically speeded up.
All went quiet. Each member of the crew, all of whom had grown up with the knowledge that they were something close to immortal, was now confronted with the very real fact of his or her mortality. There were sounds of sobbing, and crewmates hugged each other.
Tristan sat silently, the corners of his eyes pinched between finger and thumb, reflecting that it had been his wild notion that had brought them here. He had wanted to save Arianne, for life without her was unimaginable to him, but his scheme had failed, and instead he had brought all these innocent people to their deaths.
He thought again about Arianne, recalling with fondness the times they had spent together, joyous experiences they had shared, memories to cherish in the last moments before death. Fondly he relived their lovemaking, again he saw all the wonderful places he had seen when her hand had been resting in his, felt again that flutter in his heart whenever she was near...
“What’s that?” said Stith.
In the blackness, lights were winking on, one by one, stars coming back, first singly, then by the dozen, until the black hole could once more be identified by the absence of stars.
“I would hazard a guess,” said Tristan, “that this is another time distortion effect, and that we are seeing time running backwards.”
His guess proved to be correct. They saw the great cosmic diaspora again, this time in reverse, until the black hole was once more surrounded by a dense halo of light.
And then they saw themselves, drawing away from Sag’Aa, travelling back between the stars, back to Charybdis and Scylla. They were back in the battle, every motion, every event played out as a temporal mirror image of itself, lost ships sweeping back up out of the twin starry furnaces, miraculously revitalised ships returning to the fray, the tangle of vessels joined in combat resolving itself into the two orderly convoys of the rebel and Dynasty fleets, which then elegantly withdrew from each other along perpendicular courses.
“Look!” said Stith, pointing excitedly at the screen.
It was as if his voice had broken a spell. They were once more looking at the black hole, but it had changed visibly. At its centre there was a pinpoint of light.
“What...?” Stith mumbled.
“I don’t understand it,” Tristan muttered beside him. “Light where no light should be.”
He touched a control to enlarge the middle of the screen’s image. The pinpoint of light remained featureless, merely growing in size, like a star viewed through a telescope.
They drew ever closer. As they did so, the sense of unease heightened. Warning lights on control panels flickered momentarily on and off. The crew felt tiny muscle spasms in different parts of their bodies, repeatedly.
“It’s starting,” said Tristan.
“What is?” asked Stith.
“The gravitational effect. Increasingly it’s trying to stretch our bodies and the ship. By this point the gravity differential between the nose of the ship and the tail must be quite phenomenal. It’s only the assemblers that are holding us together. And there’s no telling how long they can hold out.”
“If we didn’t have them...?”
“We’d either be dead or pretty close to it.”
“So they’re essentially prolonging the agony?”
Tristan gave a wry smile. “If you want to put it that way, yes.”
The sense of a battle between the self-repair systems of both the ship and its occupants and the ever-intensifying gravitational pull, which was promising to ultimately stretch them into ribbons - before ultimately crushing them into sub-atomic particles - grew stronger with every passing minute.
Tristan found himself suddenly distracted by the sphere of light at the heart of the black hole. It was no longer purely white, but had developed dark patches, and soon resolved itself further, like a lens coming into focus. It was like looking through the porthole of a starship.
“What the...?” Sudden realisation struck him like a thunderbolt. “Oh my God!”
Stith saw what he was looking at. “What is that?”
“Stars!” Tristan gasped. “Stars in another universe! The scientists were right! Sag’Aa is a portal to another universe!”
Stith sucked in a breath. “Black holes as wormholes between parallel universes! So we’re going to pass though into an alternative universe!”
“No,” Tristan said sadly, “We’re not. We’ll be crushed to dust long before we get there. But we are the first to see their light.”
The stresses on ship and occupants grew ever more intense. They knew the end was near. They sank back into quiet contemplation, trying to push away the pain that was now wracking their bodies continuously, waiting for the moment when the assemblers in the ship’s hull would reach their limits, and she would rip open...
Breathing became more laboured, and the crew drifted in and out of consciousness. Tristan hoped fervently for a quick end. But it didn’t come.
The change in their situation, when it did come, was at first so subtle that it went unnoticed by the suffering crew of the Starcrusher. But slowly, the aching of muscles and bones began to ease, and the insistent flashing of warning lights, telling of systems at the absolute limit of their tolerance, diminished and died.
Tristan shook his head wearily. He knew something had altered, but he was unable to say what it was. In a daze, he scanned the ship’s sensors. They showed that the ship was surrounded by an extraordinary concentration of tachyons, which formed someting like a cone-shaped wave.
He reached out and shook Stith’s arm. He groaned. “Are we there yet?” he said quietly.
“Stith! Stith!” Tristan urged him. “Are you getting this? Can you tell what’s going on?”
Stith roused himself, bleary-eyed, and looked at his instruments. He shook his head in disbelief, and looked again. “It looks like we’re going backwards!”
Tristan stabbed his finger at the screen. “Damn right we’re going backwards! We’re going backwards, because there’s something coming the other way!”
Tristan’s voice carried through the entire ship. All eyes were glued to monitor screens. Where previously there had been the disc of stars visible in the parallel universe, there was now a looming dark shape which blotted them out almost entirely. It appeared to be a vessel, with the cone of tachyons as its bow wave.
All that the crew of the Starcrusher had seen before they saw again. The battle, and then their voyage to Sag’Aa. And then again the end of the universe, stars being snuffed like candles, one by one.
They crossed the ergosphere boundary, back into normal space. The light changed. The ship ahead of them slowly emerged, at first barely perceptible in spectral ultraviolet, then passing through dim blue, growing progressively lighter and clearer. And as it did so, Tristan shuddered. It was immense.
Staring at the screens, they saw its silent bulk pass over them. It was a jumbled mass of honeycombed shapes, bulkheads and decks with no outer skin to cover them, like something from an engineering programme. The entire ship, its inner parts exposed to the vacuum of space, bristled with seashell-like turrets, spires and antennae, and it seemed to go on forever.
Then, when it had almost completely passed the Starcrusher by, the warship was suddenly spun around and drawn along in the alien vessel’s wake.
“It appears to be some sort of traction device,” Stith Karsh offered helpfully. “Our own engines have been taken offline.”
They proceeded through the turbulence of the accretion disc around Sag’Aa, their progress calm and undisturbed. Whenever debris strayed too close to either the Starcrusher or her new-found companion, it would suddenly and mysteriously disperse into a silent cloud of dust, pulverised, the Starcrusher’s crew concluded, by some kind of disintegrator weapon aboard the alien ship.
When they were out of the danger zone, the alien ship halted. The Starcrusher was gently drawn close in to the flank of the other ship.
And then came the voice, soft and hypnotic, wafting from the Starcrusher’s public address system.
“Chnops,” it said. “Come to us. We wish to examine you.”
“Chnops?” echoed Stith Karsh. “What is that?”
“I have a feeling it means us,” said Tristan, rising from his seat. “Run it through the computer and see what you get.”
“Where are you going?”
“They want to examine us. The feeling is mutual.”