“What do you see?” Rachel turned directly to Jeanine, hoping for a clearer explanation.
“Nothing, Sir,” Jeanine stated slowly, searching for information as she scrolled carefully through her scanners. “It’s getting harder to tell how far away things are. It seems like our range keeps growing and shrinking. I would think that it would be shorter in front of us and wider behind us, but it keeps shifting.”
“Approaching 2.5.” Omar interrupted deliberately. “Should we keep up this pace of acceleration, Sir?”
Rachel looked down at her own equipment for a moment. It had been ten minutes since their transcript’s data packets stopped transmitting. Otherwise, everything seemed fine. The ship appeared stable and operation, they could easily travel at this speed for ten years without colliding into anything, and Joseph had been silent and still, which was a sign that they may be able to continue pushing forward gently.
“Continue our rate of acceleration until we reach three point zero. At that point, I will provide a recorded captain’s log, we’ll monitor as many physical abnormalities as we are able to, and we’ll begin slowing to return back to base.” Rachel spoke as deliberately as she could without appearing worried. They could transmit their record of events later, but if their crew didn’t hear back from Houston soon they may feel too alone to continue, she considered. It was better to reach a limit, and then return to this speed at a later time. Once their communication was operational.
“Copy that.” Each crew member stated, remaining fully attentive to their equipment. As Rachel began to construct a communication packet to manually release into space, he smiled to herself with a sense of comfort. It was good to feel that she could trust the judgment of everyone on board.
At 2.4, Rachel had finished compressing the roughly 900 petabytes of recorded information. If she jettisoned a transmission manually, she might be able to communicate their status and log; the full holographic details would just have to wait until they slowed. She had done this before while traveling through deeper space. It was crude, but it got the job done.
“Reaching two point five.” Omar declared almost too loudly. His voice revealed a happiness none of them recognized from him, but they all felt in their own way. They would be remembered for this. Books would be written about what they were doing. They were making history.
A quick stroke on her screen and Rachel completed the information compression. It may not be a full recording, but the Command Center has got to see this for themselves, she thought as she jettisoned the transmission into the warped version of reality that surrounded them.
“Something is coming up behind us quickly.” Jeanine suddenly alerted. “It’s large… maybe seven hundred meters across.”
Jeanine looked up to Rachel with uncertainty, then back down to her monitor. “I think it’s several thousand meters away, but it’s getting bigger as it gets closer to us.”
Omar turned toward Jeanine with his eyes narrowed watchfully, “It’s faster than we are?”
Jeanine looked to Rachel, searching for direction, “Sir, I’m not sure if it’s substantial, but we need to move faster or we’ll collide in less than two minutes.”
Rachel switched instruments in a hurry and saw Jeanine’s screen. She couldn’t tell the object’s size or shape, but it was approaching them far too quickly. Her pulse quickened, “Increase to three point zero then. Go!”
“Please,” Joseph asserted with fear in his tone. “I don’t know if…”
“We need to move, I’m pushing us forward!” Rachel interrupted. 2.7… 2.8…2.9… 3.0….
“Three point one! Three point two! Three point three!” Omar’s hands shook as he unintentionally barked out their speed.
“It’s still approaching! Less than a thousand meters away!” Jeanine yelled back to them.
Rachel turned back to her monitor as the speed increased further. 3.3… 3.5… 3.8… 4.1!
“We’re matching its speed!” Jeanine cried out, breathing heavily.
“We’ll increase to four point five, but please begin scanning the object, and record what you find, Mr. Science Pilot!” Rachel barked out in a staccato meter. It seemed as if the object had grown forty times its size, but it almost flickered on the scanner. It changed shape constantly, from a circular blob to a sharp razor to something that looked like a hand, trying to reach them. It swerved left and right, fell back and pushed forward, but wouldn’t seem to stop following them.
“What’s our energy intake?” Rachel blurted out, trying to retain a degree of control over the situation.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” Joseph sighed in an exhausted paranoia. Confused and suspicious, he broke his concentration to catch eyes with Omar. “I know that we’re supposed to be moving more than four times the speed of light, but why is it that it feels like we’re not moving at all? Is it the stabilization? I thought it had never been tested at the speed of light, let alone our current speed!”
Omar looked up from running multiple scans on the flying object toward Joseph, “What are you saying exactly? That there’s no reason my stabilization scheme should work at this speed?” Omar felt offended at first that Joseph would question his work now that it had proven itself at this unfathomable speed, but as he heard himself speak, Omar began to realize Joseph’s core concern:
“How do we even know we exceeded the speed of light in the first place?” Joseph said too loudly, turning to Rachel. “Based on what our instruments tell us?”
“He’s right,” Omar announced clearly. “None of our instruments have previously been tested at the speed of light… let alone beyond it. What if none of this is real? What if it’s all been an illusion perpetrated by the physics of an environment we cannot understand?”
“Well, what if we never reached the speed of light?” Jeanine interrupted slowly.
Rachel’s heart beat quickly as he stared back at her crew in silence. She looked down at her monitor for their speed. 4.8.
“Okay then, let’s assume that there’s no top speed. Let’s assume that our instruments cannot record anything that moves at this speed because it violates the foundational principles of physics as we understand them.” Rachel could feel her mind moving faster than their ship was. “All unknown factors aside, there are three factors we can all agree on. First, that our instruments read that we have reached a speed of four point eight times the speed of light, even if it may not be true. Second, that our instruments are monitoring an object that can move at a different speed than we are moving, which presupposes that we are still moving on a directional plane at a certain speed which can be increased or decreased. And third,” Rachel revealed matter of-factly so as to not scare them, “that the gap between our transmissions and responses from Houston have gotten so wide that they may not be able to transmit any longer.”
“That’s true,” Omar stated more calmly than before. “When was the last transmission from Mars?”
“When we had stabilized our speed at one point four,” Rachel responded.
“Did it record an error?” Jeanine inquired innocently.
“Yes, but I’ve been in the process of compressing valuable information and jettisoning it in bursts. I’m not sure if they’re receiving it, but I’d like to speak with you all for a moment about what I’d like to do next.”
“Should I continue scanning the unidentified object?” Omar asked, awaiting her orders obediently.
“Yes,” Rachel commanded. “But I need your clear attention. I would like to slow back down to begin returning to Mars. However, I do not want to run the risk of colliding with the object behind us. But my fear is that we will have to continue increasing our speed first, to gain some breathing room between us and the object, and that if we jettison our manifest at that speed it will be lost somewhere on this warped physical plane.”
Each officer on board listened intently. They knew there would be a risk involved with this mission when they took it, but they had not expected to ever have to make a decision like this.
“For the sake of future travel and exploration, we need to clearly report all of the information we’ve received before we try to save ourselves. Here is what I propose: we continue recording as much information as we can at this speed, compress all of that information into multiple, redundant bursts, and then jettison each burst in multiple directions in the hope that one of our satellites will be able to pick one of them up.”
Each head in the room nodded. All eyes were fixated on Rachel as she continued.
“Then, we increase our speed dramatically to gain a lead on the unidentified object trailing us. Once our lead is safe enough that the fear of colliding is gone, I would like to safely, dramatically reduce our speed until we are moving slower than the speed of light. I would like to call a unanimous vote though. My knowledge of physics is cursory compared to some of yours, so please… any suggestions are appreciated.”
Omar raised his hand, “How fast to you propose we move once we’ve jettisoned the transmission?”
Rachel looked back toward everyone, “I’m not sure. Mission Specialist Whang, your thoughts?”
Joseph shrugged, lost and exhausted as he tried to come to grips with the idea that they may not be able to slow down at all. “I never assumed we’d get this far, Sir. Would any calculations I made now reflect the reality of how things work at this speed? Assuming we are, in fact, moving at four point eight, who knows?”
Rachel turned back toward the rest of her crew slowly but deliberately, searching for some form of optimism. “Then we’ll push it to ten times the speed of light. Mister Science Pilot, please run a calculation for how quickly we should move in order to reduce our speed below one point zero before the object collides with the Dawn Treader.”
“Yes Sir.” Omar responded as he turned back to his instruments.
Rachel began the process of compressing all of their information for several powerful bursts into space. Joseph and Jeanine knew that had pushed their instruments to the limits and done what they could at this speed. Omar tried to fight the feeling that there was little chance of returning unharmed.
Rachel wondered to herself how death would be treated on this plane of existence. Could any of them die when physics didn’t work the same way at this speed? She considered ephemerally. But if they could relay the NSS Dawn Treader’s manifest, they would show the intelligent universe that there were no limits… only horizon lines. Rachel knew that they each had strong loyalties to their respective callings and that there was no reason for regrets. They may be swallowed whole by the universe, but they could still leave their legacy behind.
The full compression had been completed, which included their recoded votes to attempt Rachel’s plan. “Ready to jettison twenty copies of our full manifest… on my mark.”
“Three… two… one,” and Rachel exhaled as she released the record of their journey into the vast unknown.
“On all sides! Look!” Jeanine screamed as he pointed to the monitor. The flying object behind them had grown kilometers across as it came within 100 meters of them.
But Rachel froze in awe for a different reason as she gaped at their ship’s sensors. Over 50 other objects of varying sizes and shapes were racing in their direction.
“Quickly!” Rachel shouted, and thrust them ahead dramatically. 5.5… 6.3… 7.1…
Nothing was behind them. Only darkness in front of them.
Omar sat frozen in his chair, unable to think and unsure of what to say or do. Joseph’s mind had been drained, the limits of his abilities pushed to their physical edge as his eyes stared half-open, unable to process what had just happened. Next to him, Jeanine was hyperventilating, her eyes darting quickly back and forth at her instruments as she held her chest to regain control. Unable to breathe at all, Rachel looked down to her monitor. 17.36.
“Omar,” Rachel finally stated after an infinite amount of silence. “Please calculate our travel time before we slow. At seventeen point three six times the speed of light.”
Slowly, Omar’s shaking hand lifted from gripping his chair arm and tapped his monitor for information.
“I…” Joseph couldn’t quite get the words out. “They’re waiting back there, for us.”
“Those things wanted our information!” Jeanine cried loudly, desperately holding back her surging fear. “Did any get through? Will anyone know what happened to us?!”
Silence had overtaken them.
“We’re still recording our journey.” Rachel whispered through the silence. “If we make it back, they’ll see what happened.”
“But how much time has passed?” Omar interrupted caustically. “We’ve stepped outside of space and time, Rachel! If we aren’t overtaken by strange things that we cannot describe living in hyperspace, we might return to Mars a thousand years later!”
“I don’t know.” Rachel stated quietly and plainly. “What does seventeen times the speed of light even mean, Omar? When there’s no measure of time to compare this to, what’s the difference between 1 minute of light speed versus a lifetime? In fact, what’s the difference between reaching light speed and exceeding it a million times? Maybe this was all just perceived… maybe we’ll never return to reality as we understand it. But we have no other option at this point, and at the very least our story will be told if we succeed.”
Her crew slumped in their places, unsure of what to do.
“You’re right, Sir.” Joseph stated clearly. “Let’s drop our speed dramatically. We have no other real option at this point.”
The crew looked at each other, each searching the other’s face for a sense of optimism or resolution. But none of them could provide enough assurance, and none of them knew what to do next.
Rachel leaned forward in her chair with a distressed sense of duty, “I’m going to reduce our speed now, slowly, then more dramatically. Everyone strap in. On my mark.”
In an exhausted daze, the crew members secured themselves in place and took their positions. They were not sure if they could trust any of the information around them. What measurements would be useful when the universe could not be trusted?
“Three.” Rachel stared down at her monitor. Nothing in front of them. Nothing behind them.
“Two.” Joseph could only stare blankly at the capacitor’s minor fluctuations and wonder how this was able to happen at all.
“One.” A tear rolled down Jeanine’s cheek as she watched the monitor intently. She was going to die. She felt it.
17.1. 16.7. 16.3. 15.9. 15.5. 15.0.
Rachel was forcing herself to breathe evenly, forcing her heartbeat to slow down.
14.1. 13.5. 13.0. 12.4. 11.8.
“It’s okay. It’s going to be okay,” Omar whispered only to himself, though loudly enough that everyone could hear.
10.0. 9.0. 7.7.
Their power began to fluctuate by a millionth of a point. “We’re slowing too quickly,” Joseph felt himself wake up. “Our capacitors aren’t used to this…”
“They aren’t used to anything, Mission Specialist,” Rachel interrupts.
5.5. 4.1. 2.8.
Jeanine’s eyes thrust downward. They were surrounded on all sides. Hundreds of images approached too quickly. “Speed back up!” she screamed to Rachel, tears falling from her eyes as she shut them tightly from staring at her monitor. “I’m sorry, everyone.”
The Dawn Treader thrust forward as an object the size of a house smashed into them from behind, forcing their ship off-course. Drifting hard sideways, Rachel and Omar exploded into action, rapidly correcting the ship’s stabilization. They had trained for movement in simulations, but never anticipated getting hit by something from behind.
1.1 and their capacitors began to fluctuate wildly. Suddenly enlivened by the ship’s violent jerking, Joseph adjusted their intake, shifted settings and re-routed energy throughout the vessel. Something was broken and they were still going too fast.
“Point nine zero! Point eight two!” Rachel shouted happily, unable to break her tight grip from her instruments.
Rachel looked down at her screen. Whatever had hit them from behind had vanished. All of those things had. And a light began flashing on her mission log as they continued to slow. The computer had inserted a transmission from Houston from three days ago.
“It’s six weeks later,” Rachel stated bluntly to her crew as her computer calendar corrected itself. December third, eight forty seven am Earth time.
“The Dawn Treader’s been damaged, our rear equipment was torn from our ship when…” Omar was unsure of how to continue. How should he even report what had happened to their ship? He wondered. The visual images were a blur, the scanned images where inconsistent. They had all watched an object latch onto their ship, and yet none of them could explain anything about what it was or how it moved. Would the shrapnel from the back of their ship ever be found, or is it lost somewhere in hyperspace? Did the unidentified object take it?
“Slowing to return to Mars base,” Rachel stated warily into the operational com. It would still take them more than two hours to turn around, though she did not mind. As long as they remained below the speed of light.
Rachel scanned down to re-play the statements left by Houston. Each crew member shook with exhaustion as the voices from the Commander Center filled the otherwise silent room.
October 20, 23:31:12. “Copy that. Slow to return, great job crew!”
October 21, 00:15:44. “Commander Rachel Yaradua of the NSS Dawn Treader, this is Command Control. Do you read?”
October 21, 01:15:01. “Commander Rachel Yaradua of the NSS Dawn Treader, this is Command Control! DO YOU READ?”
Rachel skipped ahead twelve messages. October 28, 15:00:29. “Commander Rachel Yaradua of the NSS Dawn Treader, this is Command Control! DO YOU READ?”
The last message was sent to their ship three days ago. November 30, 20:31:59 “Commander Rachel Yaradua of the NSS Dawn Treader, this is the President of the International Alliance at Command Control.”
Startled for a moment, Rachel turned the volume higher so that each person could hear. Her five crew members sat still and silent, listening carefully to the President speak. Omar leaned back in his chair for a moment, wiping the cold sweat from his forehead. Jeanine could only gaze blankly at space in front of her as it began to retake a familiar form… squiggles of stars, lines of light. Joseph continued to stare downward at his instruments. It was all that he could strain himself to do.
“If, at any point in your future, you are able to return to receive this transmission, please know that the information you were able to relay before our communications broke down at one point eight times the speed of light will always be considered invaluable to the progress of humankind. You and your crew have achieved things that extended beyond the limits of our dreams, and as a species we now know that we can endeavor to move forward infinitely faster. Someday in the near future, the ability to reach a potentially infinite speed will be available to all of humankind. And that day will only come thanks to you and your diligent crew. God speed and we pray for your safe return.”
Rachel looked up slowly from their cruising speed of .24. Their scanners had detected a satellite about 4,000 miles to their ship’s seven o’ clock. She looked over toward Omar silently, whose solemn eyes locked onto hers immediately. Houston had not received any of their jettisoned transmissions.
As their computer read calculations and determined their best course for returning now that the ship had been damaged, Rachel began to wonder to herself what the crowds in Time Square would have thought if they had seen what happened to the Dawn Treader. She wondered what they thought when the transmission cut off?
“Six weeks… it only felt like a few hours,” Jeanine reflected aloud. The room was silent.
“I can’t remember how long it felt,” Omar blankly muttered back. What did six weeks feel like to people in their Solar System? He wondered, unable to remember.
Rachel locked their communication signal onto the satellite robotically. They could scan for their ship’s shrapnel later, she supposed, too depleted to multitask. Maybe they would never find it.
Maybe those things kept it.
“Houston. This is Commander Rachel Yaradua of the NSS Dawn Treader. Returning to Mars Station. Relaying our coordinates and a complete transmission of our manifest, now.”