A cabin full of strangers, 150 feet above the trees, 200 kilometers per hour and utter silence. There wasn’t the slightest hint of wind or engine noise and I could clearly hear Raju breathing in the seat beside me. All else was foreign and new. The soapy smell of fake leather upholstery and formaldehyde-laced floor mats. The grav car was squeaky clean, and spanking new like the starchy uniforms of the people who seemed to be in charge. We looked to be about 30% military folk.
I’d always admired military folk. My Dad had been a major in the Australian Army and I knew well the rhythmic discipline that underpinned his life – his fitness, his appearance, his thinking. It was certainly a safer way to live and they looked safe right now. That stone-face, straight posture, shiny shoes, parade-ground official aura was the perfect way to suppress excitement, surprise or even grief. I, on the other hand, with bird’s nest, baggy jeans, volleys and shoulder bag, was a painful mixture of apprehension, sorrow and excitement and I was certain it was sitting right there on my sleeve.
Transport above the surface had become common place in most countries since about 3 years ago. But usually it was completely straight lines grids, with vehicles traveling on centrally controlled sky-streets, always more than 500 feet altitude. Kind of like the streets of LA, but this trip was certainly different. Uncharted, unregistered, off-line, manually piloted and destined for no-where anyone needed to know about.
I could only assume that we had all been summoned in like manner; a letter, ink and paper kind, marked confidential, no postage markings, handed to me by one of those official looking military folk who had been waiting for me to get home.
Just like in the movies a dark car parked across the street, the occupant gets out as I arrive and am walking to my door. He strides confidently but nonthreatening up to me there on the door step, pinches the rim of his hat saying, “Winston March?”
“Yes, and you are?”
“Priority Mail for you sir. Highest Confidence. Good day.” And with that he briskly handed me a small manila parcel, turned on his heel and was gone. My eyes followed him till his car moved off. I finished unlocking my door and went straight to the breakfast bar, AKA mail opening center, and eagerly performed the honours.
A phone slipped out first followed by an envelope marked with my name. The letter read,
Official Address block, line break, line break,
“Winston March, you have been selected and invited to an international, and highly confidential experiment. This opportunity is directed to you because of your specialised qualifications and experience. No information can be divulged in writing but suffice it to say, the opportunity involves an extended period of full-time employment.
Your contact is Tracy and you can reach her only through the included encrypted telephone.
You will not be contacted again by us under any circumstances.
I was threatened and excited by the letter but I knew from that moment that I would make the call. I’m the kind of guy who would be eaten from the inside by the curiosity if I didn’t.
The only person I could think to tell about it was Raju. He had become a frequent confidante to me over recent months, though I had known him since University in Sydney where we met nearly 20 years ago. He was an incredibly intelligent man who had an odd, almost feminine intuition about people. Like some super fine-tuned detective but always kind. A very rare and valuable friend that I had made the effort to keep, though we had both worked at many different places around the world.
The serendipity was that it was he who had recommended me for consideration for this “experiment” so when he received my call we began excitedly planing to meet en route. A route that was now nearly at its destination.
The popularity of sky travel had been an explosion not unlike the introduction of the internal combustion engine or the internet, but faster. The invention of the gravity engine had answered so many needs of our post-modern cities and economies. It was quick, automated, clean and cheap.
Funny, I thought to myself, that little engine was driving my life right now in more ways than one. Just then we approached a high rocky ridge and started to lift up towards its crest without slowing our speed. Our pilot allowed our trajectory to shoot off and above the line of the ridge into open air. As he dropped the gravity output, our collective stomachs dropped with it. The vista was breathtaking. The sudden confines of the valley we had been in, fell back away to reveal the full breadth of the deep blue evening sky studded with little cold star pins and it shot through me in that instant.
It stung. The sky seemed so much deeper than ever before. A cold deep, full of sorrow and unknowns. Clear days had always been warm to me, full of golden light, yellow sand, the hope of times on the beach and lingering summer afternoons with people I loved. A beer, a barbeque and plenty to laugh about. We were immortal then and the shallow sky, like a bubble, allowed us to hold and keep our dreams.
Since I had lost Shana the blue sky felt lonely, even threatening. It was too long, too far and too empty. It wasn’t really the gravity engine that had killed her. It was a computer chip. The traffic control was amazingly complex, allowing relative freedom to so many vehicles on different routes in the same three dimensional space. It had cut what they used to call the “road toll” almost to zero. Almost.
A freak accident when a ram chip dropped a byte of information during a routine change-out of storage chips and her vehicle id was lost. They couldn’t plot her location or control the car’s navigation.
Whenever a vehicle dropped offline for any reason, the system couldn’t just stop everyone. It would spend a few seconds locating the vehicle via it’s redundancy layers like vehicle camera character recognition. Each vehicle visibly identified the one in front and the system would check that it had control of that serial number. Once the sky-lane with the truant car had been ID-ed, they would activate a safety override on the whole lane until the problem could be resolved. All the vehicles in the lane would stop at a default deceleration rate that required no network control. None of the passengers would even know there was a lost ID and their journeys would not usually be delayed for more than a few seconds.
This hardly ever happened. So the risk of losing an ID during a transition between two sky-lanes was infinitesimal. But it happened. The collision was enough to knock out one grav pad under her car and the computer couldn’t stabilise it. The impact harmed no-one else, only a bit of property, but Shana was barely recognisable. I was having coffee with a client when my pad beeped me the request to attend the police station post haste and the sky had been cold ever since.
First shock and disbelief, a gut sickness that made me want to throw up, then the flood of bitter regret and guilt which was steadily saturated with hopelessness, the death of dreams and the desire to die and sometimes a cocktail of all of the above. Then steadily but tooth-grindingly slowly, the whole bloody mess just faded a tiny bit each day until it became manageable, and then acceptable; until the shock was gone but the cold was not. I felt like the whole visually horrendous affair was now something I could relive almost casually, like it didn’t matter. Then I’d feel guilty that it didn’t matter and worry about what had changed in me and then I’d willfully cease my introspection and just accept the cold.
My sudden change in demeanor had been noticed by Raju and he squeezed my shoulder from across the aisle. He graciously asked no questions and I turned to offer a little shrug and a sigh which I knew he would understand. Then he gestured to the window and I saw below us a busy little hive of activity and lights, hidden from the surrounding land on all sides by the natural ridge which completely encircled it. Just offset from the centre of this complex was a massive circular building that looked much like a hanger. 10 minutes later a small crowd of civilians gathered, fringed by a circle of Khaki overall-clad armed security personnel.
“G581g is still the mostly likely candidate.” Colonel Harris continued, “All the conditions are within parameters for life to evolve or arrive. We intend to send a team of people there and back again. We have the technology and fuel sources to do it. The science is in place, what we need now is just people-power. I will be heading up the team and so I present this to you as an invitation. You’re invited to the greatest journey humans have ever undertaken. You have been selected because you each have unique qualifications and experience in your field and we need someone like you. There are at least two people here for each position and only one birth. This is an opportunity that has never been presented before and will never recur in your lifetimes or mine.”
“Sir? If I may ask.” He looked about my age with a shiny bald scalp and tall lanky build.
“Last time I checked G581 was about 20.3 light years away. There’s no way known to exceed the speed of light, so it will have to take at least that long each way. Are you asking us for 40 or 50 years of service?” A murmur rustled through the crowd of about 90 people and stilled to silence. The Captain nodded toward a greying stout Asian man. “I’ll have doctor Hinye, our team astrophysicist answer that excellent question.”
Dr. Hinye stepped forward and pulled his glasses forward so he could squint across the top of them. He rested his elbows on the lectern and spoke calmly in very American English. “The answer is yes and no. Yes, because the earliest time you, or should I say, ‘we’, could be back is 52, years from now. The answer is also ‘No’, because when we do arrive back, we will only be five years older and will only have experienced that much time. You will only render five years of what you call service at the most.
“The mechanism is called time dilation. Our vehicle is designed to travel at .9 times the speed of light, .9c. At that speed, time for those aboard will slow to one tenth of it’s usual rate with some negligible variations. To us the vessel will seem to be travelling at ten times the speed of light, or rather the distances we travel will seem to shrink, to be compressed. You will not age more quickly when you return, but everyone who remains here will have aged 10 times faster than we will have.”
“But that means that everyone we know and love will be gone!” This time he had popped up like a jack-in-the-box. He was obviously agitated as if he’d been treated unfairly. “We may as well have died in battle. And how do you know we will not age more quickly when we return?”
“Yes Mr….” It was the Colonel again.
“Heel. Steven Heel.”
“Yes Mr Heel. Your earthly life will be restarted and will have to be rebuilt when.. “, he paused as if he was going to add ‘if”, “we return. Being killed in battle is far more final and often less exciting. Yet it is a gamble that many of my countrymen and yours have taken and lost on far less important frontiers. In addition, this is not a conscription. You are under no obligation to participate, though we will need to take measures to ensure the proper secrecy until the press release date is reached.”
“What kind of craft can do this? Can we see it?”
“Yes and what form of fuel and propulsion does it use?”
“How can we possibly get that kind of range?”
“What about food?”
“And heat?” The questions were fired in rapid succession from different sectors of the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is an invitation and this is stage one of your exposure to our plans and the world class technology that will bring them about. This project has been kept from the public for nearly 8 years now and must be kept confidential at all costs. At this point you can walk away with a simple privacy and confidentiality contract but you cannot learn more about the mission. Should you choose to proceed tomorrow, you will have a tour of the ship and the facilities and a thorough explanation of how it all works. However, once you have that information, your minimum commitment is 6 months here on base whether or not you choose to join the team and whether or not you are selected.
“It’s now just on 20 hundred hours and we will be asking you to make that decision in 12 hours. We simply can’t answer any technical questions before that decision has been made by each of you. So if there are any last non-technical questions before I dismiss the meeting?”
“Yes Sir, if I may?” A woman with a crown of silver hair and the stance of quiet confidence was requesting.
“Please Mrs Monteath.” The colonel invited with an open palm extended upwards.
“Why Sir? Why has so much been spent in money and time by such a marvelous team of young minds, on a mission that so few of them will ever learn the results of? In your words Colonel Harris, why have so many countries sponsored this mission to the stars to find who knows what, if anything?”
“That’s an excellent question Mrs Monteath, and one I suspect you know the answer to, but for the benefit of the whole group here, I will attempt to answer it as best I can.
“We have reached the limits of unmanned discovery. We have thoroughly explored our own solar system with both manned and unmanned probes and there is little here that warrants more research. Sending a probe to G581g is logistically unworkable. Remote control of that probe would be ridiculous, with each control instruction taking 20 years to reach the probe and the camera and sensor feedback taking the same time to return. Our imaging technology is scarcely able to see G581g let alone determine much of the mineral makeup or topography of it. We know it’s there and could probably sustain life and that’s about it. So what this mission represents is the functional minimum effort required to break through our space research ceiling at present.
“Why break it at all you may ask? Simply because the stars are there. Earth orbits one of 300 billion stars in our galaxy alone. We universally ache to know what is beyond what we currently know. Many of us yearn to be free of the confines of this solar system now that we know how tiny it is and how much more there must be.
“We want to know if we are the tenants of the only habitable planet, whether we are alone in the universe, as cliched as that may be, and whether our destiny as a race is forever tied to the fragile balance of this blue planet.
“Every year we loose lives on expeditions to the summit of Everest even though we know there is nothing new to find there. But this mission sets its sights on something far greater, a summit profoundly more majestic and there is the distinct possibility that what we learn from this mission may eventually save our race and shape it’s role in the universe on the most massive of scales. I personally cannot think of a more noble endeavor or a greater personal honour.”