Saturday, November 28, 2009

Part 2 of "Outside"

Rachel snorted. “I’m surprised at you, Adam.”

He raised his right eyebrow.

“For a genius you’re quite a kid.”

“You’re disappointed, you mean.”

Rachel sighed, and looked at a screen brimming with charts and diagrams.

He’d always known Rachel was on the serious side. Fifteen years before, in 2012, after Adam had announced his discovery of stable contracted space to the world, she had contacted him with plans of applying the technology to space exploration. Naturally, Adam had been intrigued. Tests in the lab were interesting enough, but to apply his innovation to something as huge as exploring beyond the solar system was greatly appealing to him. They’d worked together ever since. She was creative, clever and supremely intelligent, but had always resisted Adam’s more jovial aspect. This didn’t bother him; it only made those instances when she did laugh all the more satisfying.

“They want something meaty, Rach. They want to find other civilizations. We have to push things a little. You know how things were before the drive, science was getting less attention every year, at least in the States. Now everybody loves this stuff. Regular people love this stuff.”

“Being reckless won’t help,” Rachel said. “If you get stranded, or there’s an accident, that’ll put all that progress in jeopardy.”

She was right, Adam knew. One accident would eliminate manned exploration for decades, if not forever. Idiot robots would become the explorers, bringing back snapshots of far off places like mechanical tourists.

They’d already sent dozens of probes out into space using miniature Alcubierre drives. The results had been spectacular. Close-ups of the sun, Jupiter, Uranus, even Pluto. Wide shots of the solar system from the outside. There was even a powerful telescope clicking pictures of Oort cloud comets. Images that had roused Earth’s population to gaze at the night sky again, with thoughts of breaching that last frontier. Slow, lumbering progress through space using conventional propulsion was gone, suddenly replaced with fast-paced exploration. The inevitable next step had been manned missions. The thought of sending human beings out to discover the mysteries of the galaxy, and beyond, was enough to push even the most apathetic people into flights of fancy.

Rachel was correct about treading carefully with these first steps, however. She was ensuring that missions would become funded on a regular basis, that people would be roaming about the stars unheeded by Earth politics, or Nasa budgets. Scientists could eventually visit planets and solar systems, frolic in the wonders of dark matter, or experiment with black holes. She had thoughts of a super civilization on her mind, and she was afraid it all hung in the balance with this mission.

“Let us get out of the solar system, at least,” Adam said, “Those probes did it without a single bubble pop. Contracted space won’t hold out for much more than that anyway.”

Rachel bent toward the computer and typed in a few instructions. The display showed graphs that were quite familiar to Adam; statistics relevant to the manned mission that had taken place about five years before.

Two astronauts had astonished the world by using the Alcubierre drive to visit Jupiter from Earth orbit in less than a full second. The credit for that mission had gone to Rachel. She had plotted out the distances, had performed extensive tests in a lab on Earth, and provided concrete math for them to work from. The rest had been done in space in record time, with unlimited funding from various countries helping speed along the process of building the first crew-sized ship to contain the Alcubierre drive.

After Jupiter, the astronauts had popped back near Earth again, with stupendous control and ease. With interest still riding the wave of Adam’s discovery, people had practically held a worldwide holiday on the day of that event.

Adam remembered Kasi’s face on that day. She had looked as breathtaking as usual, but an added glow of exultation had made her staggeringly beautiful. They had watched the stars for hours that night, Carol chirping with enthusiasm next to them. Adam hadn’t thought life could get any better than that. He smiled at the memory.

“We’re using a tighter model this time,” Rachel said, still staring at the monitor. “I know. I finished the build, here. The Casimir harvesting is quicker, sharper. Even the oscillation is faster. You’re going faster than they did.”

Adam shrugged. “Yes, right. We’ve adjusted for that. It’s practically hands-free. Besides, Chris knows what he’s doing. He knows more than I do.”

“I do?” came a voice behind them. Chris Worth swung in from the sleeping quarters, an undershirt and pajama pants covering his lanky frame. Adam marveled at how Chris moved so lithely in microgravity. The mission commander was long-limbed, with light-brown hair and deep blue eyes. His thin face, always calm, was now quizzical. “You’re the physicist, remember?”

Adam laughed. “True. Which means I know nothing practical, eh?”

Coming to a stop next to them, Chris chortled. “Guess it’s all up to Rachel.”

“Good,” Rachel said, “that means you two are going on a short trip.”

Adam tilted his head back, staring at the ceiling tubing. “She wants us to stop short. Not test a full bubble length.”

“Oh?” Chris’ eyebrows went up. “They expect us to use a full bubble.”

Several outside companies had helped fund the project, all of which had their own ideas on how to use the technology, but Nasa still called the shots, and they’d opted for a stress test on the duration of a single expanse of contracted space, using a ship designed to hold passengers. The ship Rachel had designed was larger than the one used in the last manned mission, as was the Alcubierre drive, and so its limits still had to be ascertained in practice.

Adam hooked an arm around a handhold. “Well, we’ll go far anyhow.”

After another week of planning, including entering Rachel’s improvised stop into the calculations, Adam and Chris were in the ship, ready for launch. Though they were over an hour away from activating the drive, Adam felt perspiration on his forehead, and his spacesuit felt unreasonably constrictive. He writhed fitfully, trying to loosen the joints.

“Not comfy?” Chris asked. The mission commander was sitting next to him in the tight cockpit, also in a full spacesuit.

Adam fiddled with his open visor. “They’re all watching, you know.” He tested the sliding faceplate, and then left it down. “Probably one or two cameras from the station, but how many are looking through at us?”

“The whole world, I’d guess.”

“Yeah,” Adam chuckled, “this tops all the reality shows on at about this hour, doesn’t it?”

“People might check us out at the commercials,” Chris said with a grin.

They didn’t have much to do but wait for the countdown, and Adam tried to busy his mind with thoughts of what future astronauts might discover with this new technology.

The drive technology was getting better with every construction, with every test. People worked at making the spatial contraction greater, greedier, thereby increasing speed. Rachel had innovated on that principle already, and had applied it to this very ship. All this after just a decade of testing. What would the next ten years hold? Traveling to Jupiter from Earth orbit in under one second certainly sounded fast, but some critics, for there were always critics, claimed the speed was still insufficient to travel to anywhere other than neighboring stars without considerable time. Adam had disregarded the naysayers, knowing full well that the technology was still young, with plenty of refinements to come. Rachel promised this ship was faster. The distances between stars in the Milky Way were shrinking with each leap in technology. Humanity was no longer bound by relativistic speeds.

The warp field created by the drive had interesting properties compared to traveling while bound by relativity. The major reason the technology had gotten so much attention was its ability to allow the ship inside the bubble to remain unscathed, while the space around it became subject to a downhill effect that was ultimately faster than light, without the penalties of time dilation. Though the bubbles unleashed strong tidal forces, the trip for anyone riding inside was exceptionally quiet.

“Why call the ship Encounter?” Chris asked, breaking Adam’s thoughts.

Adam tested the straps that held him in his chair. “Ominous, eh?”

“We won’t encounter much, I think.”

The ship was sturdy, less geared toward a single mission like the one used to travel to Jupiter, and evidently meant for repeated tests. “Maybe they plan on visiting nearby stars with this very ship,” Adam said.

“Rachel would never allow it. She wants this ship for tests inside the solar system.”

Adam knew this would be his first and last time in space. Trained station personnel didn’t spend much time in space on the whole, and he was just a guest physicist, up here for public impression more than any kind of expertise, which meant this was a one-time deal. His goal on the mission was to stabilize the bubble, to make it resistant to popping, and let the shut down of the drive determine the stopping point rather than waiting for bubbles to collapse. A job easily left to any other astronaut once this mission was over. If the drive were to ultimately allow people to have a first encounter with an alien civilization, Adam would not be the one walking down the ramp proclaiming he was coming in peace.

“Besides,” Adam said, “little green men are going extinct.”

Chris shrugged.

That human civilization had found a way to achieve faster than light travel at this early a stage in its development, or rather had found a way to skirt around having to travel at relativistic speeds, meant that other, older civilizations would have come upon the innovation ages before humans did. Since the immediate area around the solar system didn’t hold any evidence of extraterrestrial life, the number of sentient beings running around the universe could be low, if not zero.

“You don’t buy that, do you?” Chris asked. “We’re only a few thousand years old as a decent civilization, maybe they just haven’t been in the neighborhood for a spell, while we were growing up.”

“Who knows.”

Of course Chris would see things in an optimistic way. Adam had met him for the first time on the ship’s space station, and there had been something immediately reassuring about the fellow’s casual demeanor. Adam guessed the man had probably never gotten angry in his whole life. His personality made for an excellent astronaut, a profession that literally left you shoulder to shoulder with your colleagues for long periods of time. His easygoing attitude probably contributed to the man’s current mangy appearance.

“Letting the beard grow,” Adam commented, touching his own stubble.

Chris smiled. “Who’s going to know where we’re going?”

This was his mission commander. Adam appreciated it, rather than getting worried at the man’s lax attitude. Chris had shown that he was a top-notch astronaut during the two weeks in the space station by exhibiting an intimate knowledge of the Encounter’s workings. It was possible he understood its intricacies even more than Rachel. As relaxed as he was, Chris had done his homework.

Let him be a hippy, Adam thought, he’s earned it.

Adam glanced out the small window to his right. They’d been moving away from the tiny station for nearly an hour now. Skylab C hung there, between Earth and moon. Its location in the Lagrange Point made it a low maintenance station in terms of reorienting, held there by the opposing gravitational pulls of the two massive bodies. The ideal spot for building the Encounter.

Rachel radioed in and spoke to Chris for a while, going over various systems and checking that nothing had changed since she’d tested its basic propulsion a few weeks ago. It was in perfect shape, apparently.

Chris really didn’t have much to do, and he easily admitted as much. The onboard computers were top of the line, and specifically dedicated to the Alcubierre drive. Software engineers had arranged for them to have an easy ride, the automatic systems relying on a complex three-dimensional star map to pinpoint their position from wherever they would end up when contracted space dispersed.

The ship builder sounded nervous on the radio, repeatedly checking instruments with Chris. Even the mission commander’s languid demeanor couldn’t calm her. After running down a life-support checklist, Chris was given the go-ahead to power up the drive. An unremarkable step, with just a few taps on the screen and the flip of two switches. There was no apparent change in status aside from a command-line interface on the monitor showing that a warm-up period had commenced. They both locked their faceplates.

Rachel signed off, and they sat there, waiting for a five-minute countdown on the right of Chris’ monitor to wind down.

Chris checked the instruments again, and verified their orientation. He didn’t do this out of nervousness, but out of habit. He’d been on countless missions before, and was likely bound for Earth sometime soon to save his bones from deteriorating completely in the microgravity.

“I can’t help but think we should be making a bigger deal out of this,” Adam said, smirking.

“I think the people at home are making a pretty big deal out of it right about now.”

“Should have brought champagne.”

“You do know the cost of bringing a single pound into orbit, right?”

Three minutes. Adam had never experienced a working drive like this. Experiments on Earth were highly contained, and nearly always set in a faraway compound and manipulated remotely. But this time he was inside the experiment itself.

A slight reverberation passed over the ship, and ice crystals blossomed outside the window.

One minute.

Adam turned with difficulty to look at Chris. The mission commander’s eyes were relaxed, almost sleepy. He turned slightly when he noticed Adam watching him. “It’s fine, friend.” His arms floated up in front of him. “Wonder what we’ll see.”

Adam’s arms were tight against his body, resisting zero gravity. He’d never been a person prone to anxiety, but he found the impending activation of the drive, while sitting right inside the radius of its effect, nerve-wracking.

It’s alright, he thought, Rachel checked everything. Just a matter of waiting it out.

At thirty seconds the stars outside wobbled with a minor distortion. The beginning stages of contracted space.

A moment of tense anticipation, and then the countdown hit zero.

Light suddenly streaked by the window, leaving long bands, like unending spaghetti strands, behind them. The lines accumulated as seconds passed, and Adam watched in breathless silence from inside his spacesuit.

“Systems O.K.” Chris said, his mellow voice entering Adam’s helmet. “Oscillation optimal. Casimir cartouche optimal.”

Reassuring. Adam watched the small monitor in front of him. The variations in contracted space were surprisingly minor. He adjusted the inflow of exotic particles, only by a slight amount, by tapping controls on the screen. Chris had all the control now; he could terminate the contracted space at a mere touch. Rachel had insisted on it.

The ride, regardless of its placid progression, pumped Adam full of adrenaline. The drive was holding, far longer than anticipated. He didn’t want it to stop. Chris apparently reflected that wish, for his gloved hand did not move to tap the shutdown tab on his screen. They had surely already passed Rachel’s stopping point by now.

“How far, friend?” Chris asked. “We can let her run for a bit. Bubble’s stable, isn’t that something?”

Adam swallowed, and nodded. It was something. The drive had never held a bubble for more than a few seconds. They were coming on half a minute now.

“Rachel’s going to kill us if we leave it any longer,” Adam said.


Chris leaned forward to touch the screen, but Adam nudged his hand out of the way before it made contact. “Still,” Adam said, “we’re doing what they wanted.”

The mission commander brought his hand down. “We’re far now. Navigation shouldn’t be tricky, though, not with the computers. Contracted travel is straight-line stuff.”

The star-lines outside were crowding the window now, an expanse of glowing light streaked with black bands. Then the stars were gone, and black filled the window. A flash of white pulsed, and darkness again. The lights flashed repeatedly, every pulse quicker.

“What’s that?” Adam asked.

“Don’t know,” Chris answered. “Oscillation tightening. We’ve been accelerating.”

“What?” How was that possible? The drive didn’t change from its original state, it couldn’t, there were no controls for that.

The flashing outside stopped, and a deep darkness held.

It was then that the Encounter’s passengers lost consciousness.

The foregoing is excerpted from Outside by A. J. Seguin. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from the author.

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