He dreamed about swimming. It started out comfortably enough but the water was turning cold now, and an octopus had wrapped its tentacles around him. The hateful creature was reaching down his throat, chilled tentacles grabbing … choking.
He woke with a scream, strangled by tubes running down his nose and throat to his stomach and lungs. Confined in some sort of capsule, he had no room to move his arms and legs – pod. There were tubes going everywhere – they seemed to be attached to him. They went into his nose, down his throat and a couple of other places that his mother taught him never to mention in public. He couldn’t look down, the containment was that complete. Pod.
Jim’s breath began to come in bursts; he couldn’t suck in enough air. Struggling against this terror, his heart raced. His skin felt like it was on fire with pins and needles, from his feet all the way to the top of his head. There was no window, just darkness. POD.
Maybe he could rock the capsule and get it to fall over. Ha! Fat chance of that when it was all he could do to move his head from side to side. A red light suddenly began pulsing next to his right eye. There was no noise, just the red light blinking. Heart nearly beating out of his chest, Jim struggled all the more. Was the damn thing going to blow up? THE POD!
Just as he was about to reach full on panic, he heard a metal whirring noise and then heard a series of clicks. Memory returned and Jim realized that he was in a pod, a cryonic chamber designed to keep him alive for the ten years it would take for the cargo ship to cross interstellar space. Thank heavens, he wasn’t some entrée on ice in an alien spaceship. Coming out of cryostasis always left him a little confused at first.
Suddenly he felt the tubes retracting. The pain was – white and fire and electric. The mouth and nose tubes being the last to come out, he couldn’t even scream his horror and outrage. As the last one retracted, the door opened and without its support Jim fell to the floor. He vomited repeatedly, an oily brown fluid. When there was nothing left inside of him, he curled up into a fetal position and passed out. This time he dreamed of sunlight and ocean.
Jim Rivers signed on to make the journey as a navigator. It wasn’t such a bad trip, as interstellar travel went. He would sleep through the actual space travel and awaken at the other end in orbit around Altera, the new Earth. The cargo? The ship was the cargo. The Valiant Explorer was a Premium Class Trinite Excavator and Processing Facility. Upon arrival it would orbit the host planet. The ship came apart in sections that could then be towed to the planet’s surface. Ten sections in all. It was a massive undertaking.
Once on the ground each unit was broken down and when reassembled and brought to the whole, it would be part of a self-contained, fully automatic excavation community. Each assembly team consisted of six men and women who traveled and lived in their sections or modules, frozen for the trip as Jim had been in his pod outside of the navigation deck.
Trinite was as necessary to life as oxygen. At least big business thought so. They discovered that trinite, when fused with iron and then cooled, resulted in a metal that did not transfer heat. It did not melt or absorb it either. Trinite simply reflected it away. This caused a sensation, as the applications were endless. A spaceship could fly into the sun to recharge its plasma engines, a ship could (theoretically at least) burrow to the center of a planet. A spaceship with a trinite shell could conceivably even make it through the heat of a supernova.
Scientists on Earth mastered gravity and interstellar space travel between the years 2100-2400; the only limitations mankind maintained in space travel today were those that caused erosion. Oxygen and water recycled easily enough, and food could be grown in greenhouses aboard the ship. That was another thing. Once cast, trinite didn’t seem to rust or chip. Of course large deposits had been found on Altera, hence the cargo delivery. To date, it had yet to be found on the planet Earth. It was beyond valuable.
So far it looked as if this wasn’t going to be much of a fresh start. A brand new planet with fresh air and clean water and the first thing they do is bring in an excavator. Of course, the planet would have to be made habitable, and the natural resources at hand would play a major role in that. Right now there wasn’t much more than grasslands in the south and icy frozen land in the north. The local residents looked a lot like zebras and had the brain capacity of Labrador retrievers. At least, that described the ones they had found. It was a shame, after the near ruin of the planet Earth back in 2459, mankind had not learned a thing in the thousand years since.
Jim stirred. The darkness was made of ice. Fits of shivering left little warmth and instinctively he clenched into a ball trying to conserve body heat. His mind tried to make sense of the sensory input and was failing. Soon he would have to open his eyes and find out why he was in such distress but he didn’t want to – he wanted to go back to sleep and dream. He tried to imagine sparkling clear ocean waves crashing overhead as he snorkled on a coral reef. But no, the water was cold and the rock was hard. His aging bones were protesting this rough treatment. Another bout of shivering rattled his head against the floor and caused him to wince. Enough.
He opened his eyes and saw his pod and five others in a row. The two next to his, holding the Captain and his First-In-Command were black and powerless. Some malfunction? Charlie, the Captain, had been a good man but Jim could hardly process this yet. All he knew was that it was cold and he needed to clean up and get dressed or he would die of hypothermia. He climbed to his feet, using the pod for support. He was a little dizzy at first, and his legs were still shaky. He staggered to his quarters and went straight to the bathroom. A few seconds later blessed hot water rained down on him. It warmed his aching bones and washed away the cold slime of the pod. At the end of his water allotment he looked out of the steamed shower door and saw a beautiful brunette standing in the bathroom watching him. She was wearing denim short-shorts and a red and white top, tied suggestively under her breasts.
“Howdy Jim.” She said with a sweet southern tang.
“Stella.” Jim answered as he opened the door and turned on the hot air jets to dry himself. He frowned as he moved past her and spoke to her reflection in the mirror. “I don’t like that kind of get-up,” he said, rubbing his face. “Original program please.“ The young woman behind him kind of shivered and shook herself into another shape. She now wore a grey bodysuit and a black jacket with the company insignia embroidered on the lapel. Interesting that he could even hear the swishing fabric of her clothes as she moved. The holographics on this cargo ship are really good, he thought. Auditory enhancement to a holographic package was a pretty expensive program. With very little imagination he could easily pretend that her voice and the little noises that attended her movement came from her and not from speakers embedded in the walls of the rooms and corridors of the Valiant Express. Sometimes it was easy to forget that she wasn’t real.
Jim inspected himself in the mirror. He was a little skinnier than he had been when he went into cryostasis, but was still in good shape. At 60 he was older than the average miner but by no means ready for retirement. His crew cut stubble was solid white and his beard would have more salt than pepper when it grew out. Jim didn’t care, it wasn’t a beauty contest. Good thing too, a crooked nose attested to the many fights he had gotten into in his youth. He fingered the deep scar that ran over his right eyebrow. There was a lot of rum and a lot of blood on him as well as in him that night. He had prayed to the Lord that if he lived through that one he would quit fighting and grow up. They had each kept up their end of the deal.
“There is a situation on the navigation deck that needs your attention.” Stella said. Her voice was an electronic blend of sounds, designed specifically for the group in this spacecraft. The computer had no gender but scientists had realized long ago man’s propensity to attach human qualities to animals and machines. The holograph, designed to reassure and calm the humans it came into regular contact with, was a familiar presence so far from people and things that were recognizable. It was amazing what tricks the absence of your solar system could play on your mind.
“Stella, what happened to Charlie and Red? Their pods weren’t working.”
“Their pods short-circuited four years into the journey. The resulting fire damaged both of their pods beyond repair as well as some of my memory banks.” She replied. Jim took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Charlie had been a friend. He didn’t know Red Banks at all, he had been newly assigned to the ship before take off. That explained why Stella had wakened him first; he was next in command.
“Have we arrived at Altera?” He asked.
“We have not.” Stella responded.
“Then why did you wake me up, and why so fast?” Jim shuddered. ” I was able to feel the tubes coming out.”
“That is regrettable, but an urgent situation requires your attention.”
“Where are we?” Jim asked, shivering.
“The star system here has not been mapped. It does not have a name.”
“Seventy degrees Fahrenheit please.” He said as he dressed in his own grey jumpsuit. He heard the whoosh of air coming through the ducts almost immediately. “Not in Altera, huh? I wonder what is going on.” The temperature inside the module was kept at a bone chilling 45 degrees when they were in cryostasis. He left his quarters and headed for the bridge.
Jim entered the bridge and went to the navigation desk. He turned on the main console and waited for it to power up. “Start me some coffee, and some scrambled eggs and bacon please.” He added as an afterthought.
“Do you want some toast with that?”
“Yes, wheat. Make it four eggs and some sausage.” Jim replied.
“Right away. Oh and I double-checked the maps. This area is unknown. I am unable to tell you where we are.”
“Stella, show me the last known area that we traveled through. Can you find the point at which we left mapped space?”
“That will take a while Jim,” Stella said. “The fire damaged memory banks G1310 through G3907. They hold mapping information as well as the time keeping programs.”
“Isn’t there a back up system for that?” Jim asked as he rose from his desk. “I need to know where we left known space, how long ago and why the ship deviated.”
“I am collating.” Was the efficient response. “In the meantime, your breakfast is ready. Bon appétit.”
Jim stopped by his locker to get a jacket; it was still quite chilly in the corridors. As he walked toward the galley his eyes were drawn to the metal ribs placed every twenty feet or so along the walls. They started at the floor on either side and continued across the ceiling. As a result, when looking down the hallway one felt as though they were inside a huge metal caterpillar.
Arriving at the galley Jim went to the converter (much like a microwave oven) and opened the door. There on a tray in front of him was a plate with two scrambled eggs, two pieces of toast and a small bowl of hot oatmeal. Jim frowned. A large mug of coffee graced the side of the tray, a wisp of steam curling up enticingly. While the reconstituted food wasn’t exactly the same as the real thing, he was ravenous and it wasn’t bad.
“Stella this is not what I ordered,” he said to the computer.
“I know Jim. I am sorry. You are on a sodium restricted diet. I can add a pat of jelly for the toast if you would like.”
Jim nodded. Anything to help disguise the taste. The food in outer space reminded him of the Boy Scouts and drinking out of metal canteens when he had been a boy. The water had a metallic taste to it that he had disliked. The food aboard the ship had that same taste to Jim.
He ate his breakfast while Stella gathered the data he had asked for. He would head back to the bridge after eating. Once there he would be able to take his first look outside of the ship
Stella appeared beside him a little while later as he walked back. He knew without looking that she had joined him, as the ship supplied the sound of a second, lighter set of footsteps in addition to his own. Since he was the only person awake on the spaceship, the footsteps could only be hollographically generated.
“Are you feeling well after consuming your edibles?” She asked.
“After what…yes. Thank you,” Jim replied. “Have you been able to find that data?”
“I have not. But… after scanning the galaxy that we are in I have determined that the information is of secondary importance.” She said.
He stopped to look at her and she continued.
“The star closest to this ship will soon be entering thermonuclear runaway.”
“The white dwarf in this binary system-” she began, but Jim cut her off.
“Wait… white dwarfs? Refresh my memory please.” Jim could map stars all day long, but he was a little hazy on their physical properties. He resumed walking toward the bridge.
“A white dwarf is a star that is no longer in it’s main sequence. It has used up all of its hydrogen and is no longer burning, no longer creating heat or the pressure that holds gravity at bay. In effect, gravity wins and the star shrinks to about the size of the planet Earth. They are usually white, and so the name.”
“Okay,” Jim replied, picking up the pace. “If it has burned up all the hydrogen, how can it have a thermonuclear anything?” They reached the brdige and Jim instructed Stella to open the view port. They stepped past the console to look out the window that now covered half of the front wall. Directly in front of them and quite bright were the two suns, revolving around one another. Stella increased magnification and decreased brightness so that Jim could see the stars interaction more clearly. The larger yellow one had an odd shape, almost resembling a balloon with a thick tail that tapered down to a small sream in a circle around the smaller lighter orb. Stella turned to Jim, his mouth had fallen open.
“This white dwarf is part of a binary system. It is gravitationally bound to the larger yellow star there. Because of its incredible gravity the dwarf is drawing hydrogen away from its binary partner. When its mass increases by 40% it will become unstable and undergo a catastrophic explosion. That is thermonuclear runaway. The entire star explodes and disappears. It is known as a Type 1A Supernova, and we are about one light year away from it.” She turned back to the view port.
Jim raked a hand through his hair roughly. “Alright, so we make a run for it… how fast can we turn around?” He asked.
“At our size and speed at least one thousand miles,” she responded.
“Let’s get moving then!” Jim moved purposely back to the console and began plotting the sequence to slow the ship and turn it around. He was efficient, and knew his work well. There was one planet nearby, a gas giant by the looks of it. The chemical makeup was a mash of acetylene, butane, ethylene, hydrogen and methane. It would explode spectacularly in a supernova. They could go back to it, but hiding behind it would be suicide. An idea, however, did begin to take shape.
“If we approach the planet with this trajectory and speed,” Jim consulted his maps and did more calculations. “Yes. If we approach here..” he pointed to the planet. “Enter orbit there and keep our speed up we can ride it around and slingshot out the other side.” He tapped his light pen against his teeth. “It could work. It would leave us headed in the opposite direction, about 45 degrees away from where we are now. We’d have one hell of a boost. What do you think?”
“I think it will work quite well to turn us around. It will not, however, get us far enough away.”
“It won’t?” Jim’s shoulders slumped.
Stella shook her holographic head. “Most supernovas extend about one light year, and we are right on the edge of that boundary. However the shock wave continues to spread out. We cannot outrun it.”
“How long? He asked, “until it happens?”
“The white dwarf will enter thermonuclear runaway in approximately 36 hours.”
“Isn’t there anything we can do? Surely something…”
“Even if we jettisoned all the other modules we could not outrun this explosion Jim. The ship will disintegrate in the shock wave. This is most regrettable.”
The modules – Jim blanched. There were six people in each one of the modules. There were five more in his, all still frozen. There was now a very important decision to be made. He went ahead and programmed the course changes into the computer banks. The loss of forward momentum was immediately felt. He rose from the console and headed back for his quarters. He stopped in the doorway, addressing the computer’s holograph one more time.
“Stella, I need the personnel files of everyone on board the ship. All the modules.”
“Right away. What are you thinking Jim?” Stella asked.
“I have to decide.” He responded, deep in thought.
Jim’s eyes wandered once more to the stars outside the view port. “I have to decide whether or not to wake the others and let them know that they are about to die.” He replied.
Jim knew this was a decision he couldn’t make alone. A religious man his entire life, he only knew one way to resolve it in his mind and that was to pray. In spite of the known outcome of their plight —-of the fact that there was no hope of survival, Jim stopped right where he was in the hallway and prayed.
He entered his quarters soon afterward and sat at his desk flipping through the personnel files, one after the other.
*Baker, Thomas J., Crew Chief, 27 years old at departure, fluent in several languages. The accompanying picture showed a handsome young man with close cut brown hair and blue eyes. *Carver, Jessica A., Crew Chief, 25 years old at departure, 5 years experience off world. Her picture showed a smiling blonde woman with pearly white teeth.
*Grant, Shane; Adams, Gregory; Miles, Stanley; Stuart, Franklin; Waller, Amelia – the names were starting to blend into one another. Almost all were young, healthy people. There were a few old-timers like himself, Bill Bauer and Marcus Holden. He thought Bill would be the stronger of the two, and so headed for his pod first.
He set the pod to slowly reanimate the man inside, making sure that he wouldn’t come back to consciousness as Jim had – awake too soon and in pain. He sat at the foot of the pod and waited for Bill. Stella materialized beside him.
“You’ve decided to wake them, I see.”
“Yes, there was no choice. Not really.”
“Why is that Jim?”
“Each person has the right to face their own death, I guess. I don’t know how to explain it.”
“But won’t they suffer anguish because of it?”
“I guess most of them will, yes.”
“But not all?”
“I don’t believe so Stella, I mean, it doesn’t bother me so much.”
Jim shook his head. “I’ve had a good life. I’ve loved and laughed and learned. I’ve sure seen more of this universe than most folks get to. I’ve secure in my belief in The Lord, so if now is my time to die, well that’s as it should be. So no, it doesn’t bother me so much. Now, I can’t speak for the others on how they’ll feel.”
“I see,” said Stella. “What is it that you have to look forward to? Your body will disintegrate. It will no longer be. You – will no longer be.”
“Well, I believe in God, Stella. I believe he has a plan for us and when I die I will join him in heaven and live eternally.”
Stella looked at him with curiosity. As with any twenty-sixth century artificial intelligence she was programmed to learn from her surroundings. “The others believe this as well? You do realize that God is scientifically impossible.”
“I don’t know that Stella, and I have no way to explain it to you, you being a holograph and all, but I believe in God. I know there’s something more than all of this.”
“Wouldn’t it be kinder to let them sleep on, oblivious and unafraid? To let them die without remorse, or shame or sadness? To simply have peace and dignity.”
Jim’s bushy eyebrows drew together. “It is not dignified to die with slobber on your cheek and tubes sticking up every opening you got. That’s not part of any dream I ever had.”
Stella nodded. “Well then,” she said.
“Would you like me to wake the entire ship? Everyone? All the animals and..”
“Not the animals Stella, there’s no point.”
“Did your God not create them too?”
“He did, but they are not,” he gestured toward his head, “I don’t know, self-aware like we are. I need everyone awake though, thank you. Oh,” he added quickly. “Let them wake normally, there’s no rush.”
“I understand,” Stella replied. Within a few hours the entire ship was awake and showered. Most had eaten and were reporting slowly to their stations. Jim used the private intercom to call each section head for a conference. When they heard of the impending explosion everyone tried to talk at once. Jim let them work through their astonishment and anger. Eventually they calmed and he was able to assert control over the meeting.
We need to gather our people and let them know what we are facing. They will need to make peace with whatever God they pray to,” Jim said.
“Pray? Pray to whom, your God?” One man said as he paced. He stabbed a finger toward Jim. “What God would let us die for no reason? God? Psh!”
Jim considered his answer carefully. He knew that everyone was reacting to the news that their lives could very well end in three days time. That was a pretty hard thing to imagine and some were going to handle it better than others.
“Each man to his own, I imagine,” Jim said.
“Each man to his own is right,” the man said, rolling his eyes. “What the hell does that mean? What are we supposed to do now?”
“Maybe what he means is that each person needs to be prepared for the worst. We are still going to try to escape it, right?” Said another. All eyes went to Jim.
“That’s exactly what the rest of this conference is about,” said Jim. “Thank you. This is a chance for us to get together and come up with some ideas on what we might do to survive the explosion.”
“Has anyone challenged Stella’s results?” One voice spoke calmly. It was Vince Chapman, the Crew Chief of Drilling and Excavation. “What about the memory banks she says were damaged – have you looked at them?”
Jim was glad for this voice of reason. Vince was a pretty sharp guy, well-muscled and fast on his feet. Jim knew there was some military training in his background. “Vince, I have limited knowledge of that stuff and I‘m going to need some help there. I need information. How much pressure can this trinite hull can withstand? Is there someone who can look at the nearby planets and their orbits, their gaseous and elemental makeup?”
“What’s the point?” Ted Markham in the environmental section wanted to know. “I mean, we can’t outrun it, right?”
“No Ted, I don’t think we can. But we’re not going to sit here like a deer on the tracks and wait for the train to hit us either. I need to know what evasive action we can take and whether we are stronger as one whole unit or if we would fare better individually.”
“Individually? What, you mean drop the sections now, here in space? Are you crazy?” Ted asked.
“Trinite is supposed to be able to withstand the force of a supernova. Well we’re about to test that little theory. But the connections between the units are metal, rubber, composites and trinite.” Jim said, ignoring the outburst.
“Those will be disintegrated, no doubt,” said Ted.
“Total dust,” Vince agreed.
“So the question is, do we separate and take our chances alone or wait to get blown apart and hope the connections hold?” Jim said.
“Hold on,” said Tank Videle. He was the Crew Chief of Maintenance. He’d played ball in high school and was nearly as wide as he was tall, hence the name. Everyone stopped to listen. “We have trinite, and tons of iron parts. Let’s fuse enough to coat the connection points.”
Ted started laughing.
“What?” Tank asked. “We’ve got three days, right? We close the blast shields and that will hide all the rubber and metal connections. Coat the shields and you would have a solid trinite wall.”
Ted stopped laughing as Tank continued.
“Coat it all the way to the seams and you’d have one solid surface.”
“Great. That’s great Tank!” Ted was certainly enthused but Jim saw a problem.
“That is a great idea,” Jim said, “but who is the last man out?” When the last segment had been finished, someone would have to stay outside to seal it. Actually, it would take two people. The others soon came to the same realization.
Ted threw a dirty look at them. “Great. You volunteering for that one Tank? Huh?” Ted asked, his voice dripping sarcasm.
“I was just trying to come up with ideas. There has to be something!” Said Tank. He was feeling the stress as much as anyone.
“It’s a great plan,” said Jim. “Come on guys, we’re trying to come up with alternatives here. Everyone should keep thinking, we need more ideas. Tank we’re going to keep that one as Plan A. I think it’s a strong possibility that we can do this. There is one other option I want to work on, but for now I think we need to get the forge fired up and send teams throughout the ship to gather iron ore.”
“What about Captain Beard and Red?” Ted asked. “We can’t just leave them.”
Jim considered this for a moment, he was glad that Ted had mentioned it. While it was true there were more important matters at hand, and that nothing they did (or didn’t do) would make any difference to the two men who had died…it would matter to the crew. In the face of our own mortality we should not lose touch with our humanity. Difficult as the days ahead promised to be, Jim believed it would help calm the others to stick to as many normal routines as possible. It would be a reminder as well as a comfort for the crew to know that we were still civilized human beings.
“For now Ted, the pods are the best place for them. Let’s gather those that want to for a memorial service. Do you want to arrange that?” Jim asked.
Ted nodded, glad to have something important to be in charge of.
Forty-two pairs of eyes watched as each coffin disappeared behind the ship, swirling away into endless space – like partners in some macabre, silent ballet. Ted gave the eulogy himself; and while he knew neither Captain Charles McAdams or his first mate Red Banks personally, he did try to do them justice.
Jim had dressed in his uniform for the memorial, as had Ted and many others. Some attended in their grey jumpsuits, and some came in casual attire. Having personally known the captain for several years, Jim truly hoped that the end had been quick and that they hadn’t been awake for it. They would probably never know. He took a seat in the front row.
The enormity of the situation kept creeping back into his thoughts. Ever since Stella had explained the supernova process a small detail had nagged at him but he couldn’t quite get a fix on it. She said the star would disintegrate, but he had done some reading. They usually made black holes, but not always and, they didn’t always disintegrate.
He pondered on this until Ted asked him to speak. At that point he put his questions aside and stood. His words on behalf of the fallen men were few but eloquent, and he turned the floor back over to Ted after giving a short prayer. As soon as he resumed his seat he went back to work on the puzzle in his mind.
The binary star would have to be super massive, and the larger one clearly was. This supernova very likely could end up leaving a pulsar behind…what was it about the process? Jim couldn’t remember exactly. The supernova explosion would disintegrate everything in its path…or would it?
Ted finally wound down. So far he had accredited the miracle of life to chemical drops from outer space, the rise of mankind to extraterrestrial visitors and he’d compared the shortened lives of Charlie and Red to those of characters in a dramatic movie that he liked. The memorial was over and those polite enough to stay for the duration were now standing to leave. Jim thanked Ted, who shone with all the attention, the man of the hour. He didn’t seem to notice that most of the crowd were exiting the room as quickly as they could.
Jim and Vince headed back to the bridge together. Both had worn uniforms to the memorial and were now loosening their ties as they walked down the segmented hallway together, their boot heels clicking on the metal floor. Seeing the flashing red of a warning light over a steam vent made Jim struggle again to find the detail he was missing. It was important, that nagging little thought, he just knew it. Flashing light, pulsing light…aha! Jim thought.
“What do you know about pulsars, Vince?” He asked. They were approaching the navigation bay.
Vince scratched his head. “About as much as you could sweeten your coffee with I guess, why, some kind of star?”
“Some super massive stars become pulsars after they explode.”
“Yea but Stella said this one was going to disintegrate itself…and us.” Vince said as he entered the bridge ahead of Jim. They stepped up to the navigation desk. At the mention of her name the holographic image materialized beside them.
“I know, I know, but there are two suns there,” Jim continued, pointing at the binary stars. “One will go supernova, yes. But the other one still has a lot of mass. What is it going to do?” He was glad to have finally worked the thought out of hiding. It had indeed proven to be important.
“Oh I see what you’re getting at. Well, won’t it just, explode too?”
“Not necessarily.” Stella joined the conversation. “I see what you are getting at Jim. Being as they are binary stars and gravitationally bound… the larger star would take a hit but it might not be destroyed.”
“And theoretically,” Jim added, “if we were at some point directly behind the larger sun, wouldn’t it shield us from the worst of the storm?”
“The ship would have to be very close to that sun Jim,” Stella warned. “Very close.”
“But the trinite hull should handle that easily,” Jim said. “Will the blast be that much more destructive closer up than if we are say, past this point here?” Jim pointed to a spot on the display in front of him near the two suns.
“Exponentially yes, of course. But either blast zone will be fatal to the ship if it isn’t completely sealed with trinite.”
“Then it doesn’t matter which direction we take does it?” Vince said, a little desperation in his voice. He knew the ship hadn’t been sealed yet.
“I think it does matter,” Jim said with determination. “I think it’s going to make all the difference.”
Vince looked from Jim to Stella and back, eyes wide. “Are you saying we should fly back toward the stars? Toward the explosion?”
“Well…yes. I think that’s what I’m saying.” Jim nodded.
Vince took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Fly into the star.” He shook his head, suddenly grinning. “Man, that’s radical.”
“Do we have time to reach it?”
“We do.” Stella said. The three of them looked out at the glowing suns.
“Fly into the star.” Vince repeated in awe. His knees felt a little shaky.
It was the evening of Day Two. The crews worked around the clock in shifts. There was no calling in sick, no time for games or silly arguments. Everyone’s lives depended on their ability to seal the entire ship or as much of it as possible with the trinite. They had started with the first section at the head of the ship and were working their way back. Any sections left unsealed by the time the explosion started would be jettisoned. They didn’t have to seal all ten units, only the connection points between them.
Six sections had been completely done. They were now gearing up to start on the seventh. Iron for melting was becoming scarce. The department heads met again and everyone agreed that the last section of the ship would be cleaned out and jettisoned, leaving only three more to seal. By the time they cleaned it out, there would be more than enough iron to make their precious metal. The floor plates were made of iron, as was some of the duct work and equipment. Crews began work immediately.
There had been a few injuries; a woman using a welding torch, concentrating on the work at hand had not seen another worker reach by her for something and had burned the man badly. He was in the infirmary recuperating and would be put back into cryostasis soon. Another worker had been in a hurry and spilled some molten iron. Several workers went to the infirmary. Everyone would recover but each delay brought them closer to the impending explosion with less done and more anxiety.
Ted Markham lay on his bunk, seething. He had not missed the snickers, the snores and the faces of the crew at the memorial. A bunch of sheep. They were a bunch of sheep and they didn’t even know it. He laughed, thinking ironically of the biblical reference. Sheep indeed, though not the same kind as Jim believed.
It melted his heart to think of his wife and daughter, waiting to hear from him and counting the days until they could be together again. Their transport was scheduled to run six years after his and they had to be well on their way by now. He would not be there when they arrived. Nothing would be there. What would they do? How would they survive? Would they be able to gather enough fuel to return to Earth? They would of course, have supplies – but for how long? How would he ever make his way back to them? What if it was 50 years later and they were all dead?
Ted turned on to his back and stared at the ceiling. They might already be there. No one seemed able to tell how long the Valiant had been off course. It could have been a month; it could have been ten years. If only there was some way to tell how long they’d been asleep. Ted’s thoughts drifted back to the memorial, he had done a fantastic job, if he did say so himself. He was born for public speaking, maybe he would run for office if they ever reached Altera. He shivered when he thought of the terrible end the two men in the pods must have had.
The pods! The pods would tell them how long each person had been in cryostasis. If they took the hard drives out of the burned pods and hooked them up to a laptop, the computer might be able to tell them when they had short-circuited. Compare that to the current time on the computer and they should know how long they had been wandering. This could be the information they needed to know how far off track they were. With a renewed sense of purpose, Ted rose from his bunk and went to find Jim Rivers. He found him in the navigation unit.
“Hey,” Ted asked, “do you have a minute?”
Jim looked up and saw Ted. “Sure,” he replied. “What’s on your mind?”
Ted proceeded to explain his idea about the burned out cryostasis chambers and the information that the hard drives might hold.
“So if we’re figuring we’ll live through this thing,” Ted waved at the view port, “then this is information we could really use.”
“Ted, this could really work.” Jim said, excited. “Wow this is… this is good!”
Ted beamed. “Well you don’t have to look so surprised.”
Jim immediately stopped smiling and began to speak. “No I didn’t mean it like that…” But Ted grinned.
“Ah, I’m only kidding man,” he said.
“Well, you got me.” Jim laughed too, a little uneasy. This guy isn’t exactly known for being friendly.
Ted stopped laughing pretty quickly and looked out the view port at the ever-increasing white dwarf star.
“I guess I’ve made my feelings pretty clear before on what I think of God and all that.” He turned to look at Jim. “ I know you are a Christian. Can I ask you to do something for me?”
Surprised, Jim nodded. “Of course Ted. What is it?”
“Will you remember my wife Amanda and my daughter Grace when you pray? I guess I don’t believe, but they do. Even if we make it through this, I’m not likely to ever see them again. They are on their way to Altera by now, and there won’t be a welcoming party when they get there. I can’t get to them, and I can’t help them. There is nothing I can do.”
“I’d be glad to Ted,” Jim said nodding.
“Thanks,” Ted said simply, still looking out the window. He cleared his throat after a moment and turned back to Jim. “Well. I guess I’d better get working on those pods then.”
“Right, and good idea Ted. Even Stella didn’t think of that one.”
Ted smiled, he felt vaguely better than he had when he walked in. “Yea, thanks.”
Jim turned back to his console, a thoughtful smile on his face. Somehow he thought Ted’s wife would be pretty happy to know that her husband was requesting prayer on her behalf.
Day Three Estimated 7 hours until Supernova. 6:00 PM
Jim left instructions to be called when they were ready to seal the last unit and it was time. The crew chiefs had held a lottery and selected five members, all of which by chance happened to be male. Vince, Tank, Ted, Jim and Billy Castle. The last five would draw straws; and Jim had one in his pocket that would make sure he lost. The rest of them were young, with full lives ahead to live. Jim was secure in his faith and not afraid to die.
He rose and went to the view port one last time. The white dwarf wasn’t small anymore, having gained through attrition. It sent fiery blasts of material into the corona around it with increased frequency as it became more and more unstable. Jim knew it was time to go. He checked the controls again; their angle of approach brought them in directly behind the larger star, while keeping the white dwarf in front of it. The view port would have to be closed and the trinite shield put in place; they were getting close to the sun.
When his relief arrived he turned the console over to him. He prayed as he headed for the last module, that his calculations were correct and that everyone would survive the blast and make it to Altera to reunite with their families and friends. It never occurred to him to pray that his life wouldn’t be given in vain. Jim simply didn’t think that way. There was work yet to be done. Jim prayed for the strength to finish it.
Ted was also making his way down to the last module. His footsteps echoed on the metal floor panels that lined the hall. A blast of steam vented from a pipe near his head as he walked by, startling him and making him jump. Ted was one of the five, and he didn’t mind admitting that he was scared. He was pretty sure that Jim was going to volunteer, but he would need a second. Ted hurried along the dark corridor, surprised to find himself thinking that it looked a lot like the spaceship in the old movie Aliens. It had always been one of his favorites. Mankind had never encountered any intelligent aliens in space, at least not yet, but who knew what the future held? Did the future hold anything at all? Ted was terrified.
He slowed as he heard footsteps approaching. He hoped it was Jim; he wanted to talk to him one last time. Sure enough, Jim rounded the corner a moment later up ahead.
“Jim!” Ted said. He quickly caught up to the older man.
“Hey Ted,” Jim said. “It’s time, eh?”
Ted nodded. “Yea. I wanted to ask you…” he looked around. He put his hands in his pockets and hesitated. “Did you pray for Amanda and Grace?”
“I did Ted, several times.” Jim smiled when Ted looked relieved. They approached the last module and Jim paused in the doorway. “I prayed for you too,” he said, stepping through the door. Ted wasn’t sure what to think of that.
“Alright everyone, let’s get organized here.” Vince called the group together. Half the ship had turned out to see the results of the last draw. “Now Jim here has five straws,” Jim held them up, “and he’s going to hold them together while we all pick. The shortest two go outside.” Everyone knew what that meant. The two losers would be the men who were sent outside to seal off the last module. Once sealed they would not be able to get back inside. It had to happen soon, as they were quickly approaching the dying suns and it would be too hot to work out there for much longer.
Jim nodded and held out the straws. The shortest one was deliberately held a little lower than the others. Human nature would lead the others to look for the longest straw, no one would intentionally pick a short one – or so he hoped. One by one, the men drew lots.
Jim was left with the shortest one. Billy Castle, an engineer in the agriculture department, had the bad luck to pick the second shortest. At 5’ 5”, Billy was a slight man. He was a desk jockey, a nerd, and the thought of going outside of the ship absolutely galled him. His stomach felt a little queasy, this really wasn’t his department. He pressed his shirts and cleaned his fingernails and had a nice cut to his short blond hair. He didn’t go skydiving, or ride roller coasters or go outside of spaceships. What the hell was this crap about not getting back inside? Was it really the best they could do? A trickle of sweat ran down his neck and tickled all the way down his spine, raising the hair on his arms. He resisted a shiver by clenching his fists.
“The hell you say!” He said. He threw the straw at Jim and watched it bounce off his chest. “Who the hell said you get to tell me to go out there and kill myself, huh? That’s what this is, you know. Suicide!” He looked around the room at the others. Another drop of sweat gathered on his brow, then another. He was breathing through his nose loudly.
“I don’t have any better ideas Billy.” Jim said simply. “I just don’t. If you have a better idea I’d like to hear it. Maybe we can work it out where we can get you back in.”
Billy liked that idea. “Yea?” He uttered an expletive and then shook his head. “That leaves you outside still. This is not a good plan Jim.” Billy had a knot in his chest and kept sucking in air. He didn’t realize that he was panting like a racehorse.
“Damn Billy,” someone said. “Scared much?”
“Hey!” Billy looked around wildly for the speaker. “Easy for you to say dickhead, you didn’t get the short straw!”
Ted watched the exchange without emotion. There was no way this guy was going outside. He was too small for the job and if there was one thing Ted knew, you always brought the right tools to the job. If it was left up to this guy he was going to fold, and the entire ship would be at risk. The next words even caught him by surprise.
“I’ll go.” Everyone turned and looked.
“What?” Billy asked. He couldn’t see. “Who is that?”
“I said I’ll go.” Ted said. He was leaning against the doorway, hands in his pockets. Gradually people shifted until a clear walkway stretched in front of him to the center of the room where Jim and Billy waited. Ted straightened and walked over. “We’re running out of time. Billy, take off before I change my mind.”
Billy wasted no time. He shook Ted’s hand with tears in his own eyes. “I‘m, I just…”
Ted shook his hand and smiled sadly. “I know man, it’s alright. No shame.”
Billy nodded and turned away. His feet dragged as he walked away slowly, wiping his nose on the back of his hand. Several people reached out to pat his back but he waved them off and walked out of the room. He wasn’t a bad man; he just wasn’t ready to die here today.
8:00 PM Estimated 5 Hours to Supernova
The room emptied slowly. Finally all that remained were Vince, Tank, Jim and Ted. Vince assisted as Ted and Jim put on their high pressure suits. Designed by ASAUF (Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United Federation) to withstand temperatures up to 1200 degrees, they had with three layers of trinite infused cloth underneath the radiation shielding.
The bulky suits were reinforced for hazardous duty. Each arm ended in a mitt with a trinite “hand” extending from it. Inside the mitt were virtual sensors, like the type used in virtual reality gaming sets. The sensors relayed information into the artificial limb which then acted like a human hand. If you made a fist in the mitt, then the trinite hand did the same.
Ted tested his suit, flexing the hands and flipping his sun visor up and down. He checked his oxygen mix and made sure the tank was full. Vince checked each suit for any holes or scrapes that would endanger the men. Finally he slapped their helmets lightly and gave each a thumbs up.
“Good luck! Vince yelled to them. Without a radio and mike he had to yell to be heard inside the suit. Tank echoed the sentiment. Jim nodded. The suit was cool, which was a little uncomfortable in here but would be a lifesaver out there near the sun where the mean temperature was already a bone searing 850 degrees Fahrenheit at the moment.
Vince and Tank shook their hands and thumped them on the back. The respect in their eyes when they left bolstered Ted’s courage a little. It was very quiet inside his helmet. Ted listened to his breathing. It sounded really loud and came in quick gasps as he stepped into the airlock. Vince and Tank sealed them in, and would any minute open the outer bay doors.
He looked outside through a small portal. On the other side of that door was outer space. The wonder of it all began to overtake him. It looked peaceful, like something you could see from your front lawn. Except for the blazing suns (behind the aircraft at the moment or else they could not have withstood the heat) the rest of the universe looked tangible. A pretty picture, like the Grand Canyon back home. We’ve all seen photos of the grand vistas and steep plunges down multicolored cliffs. You don’t realize until you get there that looking at it is still like viewing a photograph. Even though you are there, it is simply so large, so vast that most of what you are looking at is actually very far away.
He had thought that once he got to outer space that the stars and planets would look different somehow, bigger or closer or something. That had not been the case, unless they were flying directly by a solar system the view was always the same. A black carpet sprinkled with tiny pinpricks of white, red or blue depending on the type of sun. The scale of the planets, stars and galaxies was overwhelming; the distances between them were nothing more than numbers. Beyond his comprehension. How insignificant we really are. He thought of the fickle thing, life, and how fragile it actually was. One pin hole in this suit… one pin hole and the vacuum of space will suck all the air out, make my blood boil oh and hey if that doesn’t kill me the temperatures outside of the door will. He raised his hand and the mechanical arm raised itself too. He studied it as though it was an alien thing. One pin hole. A fine sweat broke out across his upper lip.
Suddenly Ted was interrupted by the speakers set inside his helmet. He jumped, but was so thankful he almost laughed out loud; he had been seriously psyching himself out. Shake it off man, shake it off. Jim was speaking to him.
“Ted, are you listening to me?” Jim asked, looking at him. His voice sounded tinny and small inside his helmet.
Ted nodded. “Yea man, yea.”
Jim nodded. He pointed to a large silver hose with an industrial nozzle on the end of it. ”This here is your basic trinite layer. The stuff is melted in the foundry back there,” he pointed toward the ship behind them, “and on the way to the hose the mix ratio with the iron…” Jim saw that he was losing Ted. “Well, it all boils down to that nozzle. It spreads the trinite like those old insulation spreaders. Don’t let it jam, and don’t aim it straight up or we’ll be wearing the trinite. Keep the business end close to the ship’s surface; we don’t want to lose any.” Both men waited for the airlock to depressurize as Jim continued instructing.
“Keep tethered to the ship at all times. Do not remove your tether for any reason Ted, no matter what you may see or whatever may happen. If you drift away from the ship we have no way to get out there and rescue you. There might be about 3 hours in that oxygen bottle but there’s no way you would last that long.”
Ted nodded, mouth open like a guppy. Yes sir. Radiation shielding on his suit could only protect so far. Right now they would be working in the shadow of the ship, not in direct view of the suns. The ships magnetic shields were deflecting the worst of the radiation. Drift out of that protection, and even the bulky spacesuits would be next to useless.
“You trying to get me to quit?” Ted cracked out a joke. It fell kind of flat.
“Nope, just making sure you know how serious this is.” Jim answered.
“Hey, the tether stays on. You won’t get any problems from me.” Ted said.
A crackle in their helmets let them know that Tank and Vince had come online.
“Guys. You ready to go?” Vince wanted to know. Ted swallowed audibly.
“Who would be ready for this?” Jim wondered. “Yea,” he said out loud, “we’re ready.”
The outer airlock doors began to separate, exposing the airlock to the searing heat outside. The men were sweating within minutes. Jim knew that the supernova could start at any time. They moved out on to the hull of the ship. Ted found the experience surreal. He could see and feel his gravity boots locking on to the hull every time he put his foot down, but he couldn’t hear them and that was disconcerting. Back In the cargo bay the boots had made a heavy clanking noise when he walked across the floor. He had to keep looking down to make sure he was making contact with the ship and not stepping off into space.
After a few false starts (Ted had to get used to the equipment) they began to lay the last of the trinite. After an hour Vince signaled them to come inside. They had to check their suits for wear and replenish them with water, coolant and oxygen. Vince decided that they should just change into new suits. Hot trinite could build up on the mechanical hand, rendering it useless. Specks of it already lined the wrists of the suit and the tips of the hands. Laborious as it may be, it was safer to get into new suits to finish the rest of the work. They were about half way done with the last door.
Vince and Ted said their goodbyes. The ship’s personnel were going back into cryostasis. It was the only possible way for their fragile human bodies to survive the blast. It took nearly a half hour to get one of the pods online and full of fluid and they had to get their own pods up and running. Vince assured Jim and Ted that he would turn theirs on – hell you never know, they might make it back. The truth was that if they didn’t make it back it wouldn’t matter if their pods stayed on or not. If they did make it back, having the pods online might make all the difference. It would be beyond uncomfortable to have to initiate the process themselves, but when considering the alternative… a few tubes and hoses could be handled. Jim shuddered, remembering those tubes. He prayed that he would be laughing about it in a few years.
11:00 pm, Supernova Imminent
Ted wished he could wipe the sweat off his brow. It had run down into his eyes a few times and it stung like crazy. He hoped he wouldn’t have an itch to scratch since clearly that wasn’t going to happen either. He looked over at Jim, the picture of calmness, methodically spraying the trinite back and forth, back and forth. They had been out for about 45 minutes this run, hard at work the whole time. People’s lives depended on them finishing this and getting it right.
Jim was good at the job, even when he had to dangle by his tether to get at a particularly hard to reach set of hoses and gears he had worked quietly and efficiently. When Jim turned around his face was very red. He was overexerting himself but there was nothing to be done for it.
All in all Ted figured he would rather go by supernova than a heart attack. If his body was hit by the supernova explosion he would never know what happened. One minute he would be there and the next, he would be no more than so many atoms and particles floating around in space. There would be no pain, no fear.
Beside him, Jim faltered. The hose was heavy and he was having a hard time. He was, after all, in his 60’s. They had to be pretty near the temperature limits for the suits. Lord help me, he thought, just a bit more! It was so blasted hot. The air conditioning in the suit could not keep up with the superheated space around him. He turned to Ted and motioned for him to switch places.
“It’s too hot Ted, can’t hold it,” he said breathlessly. “Not as young… used to be.”
Ted patted his shoulder and moved forward.
“I got it Jim,” he said as he picked up the hose and aimed the nozzle. “This must be what hell is like.”
“This. Is nothing… walk in the park.” Jim said breathlessly. “Hell… much worse.”
Ted turned around and looked at Jim.
“Hey you okay man? Not gonna crap out on me now are ya?”
Jim smiled and shook his head. “Finish.” He said, pointing to the hose.
Ted looked at him long and hard then nodded as though he had come to some decision.
“Jim. Go back inside. Close the airlock and get into your pod. There’s only one way we can finish this. You aren’t strong enough to hold it and run the machine too. It’s going to have to be me.”
“No.” Jim said. “Not going to happen.”
“You know I’m right Jim.” Ted spoke calmly.
“Not… leaving you out here.” Jim said, eyes watery.
Ted shook Jim’s “hand” with his. “This is the way it has to be. You know I’m right.”
Jim shook his head. “I think…”
Ted laughed. “What do you think old man? I’ll tell you what I think. If what you say is right, the Lord really did die for my sins so that I could have everlasting life. That means I’m going to get to see him before you do. That’s not such a bad thing to look forward to.”
“Ah Ted…” Jim couldn’t finish.
“Pray for me old man, now get inside!”
A flash of bright light burst past the ship, blinding them for a moment. It was happening!
Jim looked back at Ted, stricken. He switched off his external transmitter and spoke into his mike, knowing that the ship’s onboard AI could hear him. He called her on his uplink.
“Yes Jim,” she said. “I cannot appear outside of the ship.“ So there were limits to the program, he thought.
“I have something I need you to do,” he said calmly, then proceeded to give her instructions. He turned back to Ted and pointed at the hose then and gave a thumbs up. With a clap on the back he moved away and bent to uncouple his tether.
Ted turned back to the hull. All that was left was the airlock opening. Close that up and they would be done – their fate sealed along with the ship. Ted lifted the hose but the doorway seemed to shimmer in front of him. The hose suddenly felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. He tried to turn back to Jim but his vision swam horribly, throwing him completely off-balance. Ted dropped the hose and tried to reach the hull of the ship, failing to get a grip. It all happened so quickly, he hardly had time to think. The last thing he saw before his eyes closed was Jim trying but failing to grab his hand as he drifted away…