When last we left navigator Jim Rivers, he had come out of his frozen sleep on board the Valiant Explorer. The Valiant is a self-contained top of the line excavation and processing facility. Massive in size and purpose, it mines (among other things) the new and valuable metal Trinite.
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 scuba dived on a coral reef. But no, the water was cold and the rock was hard. 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 outside the navigation bay. 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, warming his skin and washing 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 reached for a towel. 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 holographic package on this cargo ship is really good, he thought. Auditory enhancement to a holographic package was a pretty expensive program.
“There is a situation on the navigation deck that needs your attention Jim.” Stella said evenly. Her voice was an electronic blend of sounds, designed specifically for the group in his module. The other nine modules had their own custom blends as well. The computer, of course, 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. Amazing what tricks the absence of your solar system could play on your mind.
“Stella, what happened to the 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 then?” 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 then?” Jim replied, 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. “Thank you.” 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 navigation bay.
“Stella,” Jim said as he walked. “Have you double-checked the star maps against known routes?”
“Of course Jim.” Was the measured response.
“Check them again please.” He instructed.
Jim entered the navigation bay and went to his chair. 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 replied. “The fire damaged memory banks G1310 through G3907. They control that information.”
“Isn’t there a back up system for that?” Jim asked. “I need to know where we left known space, how long ago and why the ship deviated.”
“Collating.” Was the response. “Your breakfast is ready. Bon appetit.”
Jim went to the galley. He went to the converter (much like a microwave oven) and opened the door. There on a tray in front of him was a heaping pile of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and two pieces of toast. 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. He ate his breakfast while Stella gathered the data he had asked for. He would head for the navigation bay after eating and take his first look outside of the ship.
Stella appeared beside him a little while later as he walked back to the navigation bay.
“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 to the navigation bay.
“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 navigation bay 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 stars, revolving around one another. Stella increased magnification and decreased brightness so that Jim could see the stars interaction more clearly. The yellow star had an odd shape, it almost resembled a balloon with a thick tail that ended in a circle around a glowing white star. 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 star is drawing hydrogen away from its binary star. When its mass increases by 40% the white dwarf will become unstable and undergo a catastrophic explosion. That is thermonuclear runaway. The entire star explodes and disappears. There is no core left, no black hole, nothing. 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. The holograph regarded him patiently.
“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. They were already close. An idea began 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.