at the speed of light even the smallest grain of sand has the power to destroy the world
A dull metallic banging cut through the air, the sound of fists hitting metal. “Lillian, wake up! You’re going to be late.”
Lillian jerked awake and sat up far too quickly, banging her head on the top of her bunk.
“That dream again,” she mumbled to herself. “I haven’t had that one in years.”
She rolled out of bed and landed carefully on the floor. Really, there wasn’t much room for error. The room was barely more than a closet. It was long enough to lie down on the bunk or stand up beside it. On the back wall, there was a small writing desk. Lillian had arranged her books carefully arranged along the back of the desk. Folded neatly under her bed in a set of pull out shelves where all of her clothes–almost entirely the light orange jumpsuits of the engineering crew. All of my possessions, Lillian thought, looking around sighing.
Stripping out of her sleepwear, she called out, “Be there in a minute.”
“We don’t have a minute,” the voice came back. “Hurry!”
She looked at the clock and felt a surge of adrenaline. She really didn’t have time even for a shower. She sighed as she grabbed a jumpsuit from under her bed and almost tore it in her hurry to get it on. Half stumbling into her boots, Lillian hurried out the door and almost fell over the girl standing there.
The girl was Lillian’s best friend on the ship and they were quite a study in opposites. Lillian’s tall frame almost towered over her friend’s barely five feet. Her hair, so blond it was almost white, was cut in a pixie cut no more than a few inches long while Lillian’s dark brown locks fell below her shoulders. Through the miracle of time dilation, they were almost the same age although Lillian had been born several years earlier. Since the first time they’d met, they’d become fast friends.
Luckily, she was far more awake than Lillian was and dodged nimbly out of the way.
“I’m not deaf you know,” Lillian grumbled.
“You are when you’re sleeping. Come on.”
“Madeline, has anyone ever told you you’re far too cheerful in the morning?”
“You do,” she grinned, “every day.”
Lillian scowled at her, but Madeline was already off down the corridor. She didn’t have a chance though; Lillian’s longer stride let her catch up easily.
“So what’s on the list for today?”
“A bit of dust got through the shields. The Commander wants us to take one of the shuttles and fix it up.”
“By us, I assume you mean me?” For some reason Madeline hated the shuttles. She’d never volunteered exactly why though and Lillian never felt the need to ask. She liked flying.
“I’ll keep an eye on everything from the dock. This afternoon there’s a malfunctioning conduit that we’re supposed to check out.”
Lillian raised an eyebrow. “Something serious?”
“Nah, the system automatically rerouted power around it back when it first noticed it. Most likely just a routine checkup. But the Commander wants everything running at full capacity for tomorrow.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“Don’t tell me you’ve lost track of what day it is. There’s a connection scheduled tomorrow.”
“Of course there is. There’s always a connection.” And there was, more or less. Every six months, ship time, as regular as clockwork.
Madeline seemed particularly cheerful. “Sure, but just think of the new supplies from home.”
Lillian looked at her and waited. It was really the only way that such a large crew could survive the trip–the ship was almost self sufficient, but there were some things it just didn’t make sense to produce in interstellar space. Still, there was something more to Madeline’s mood.
“Oh fine. And new crew!”
“Of course.” Lillian smiled at her. Resupply missions came adn went like clockwork, but new faces were a bit more sporadic. The last batch had arrived a year ago now and the group before that had been on Borealis over another year and a half before that. No one particularly wanted to be stuck out in the void between stars for the minimum 3 year term. Well, almost no one. Lillian had been on the Borealis since its launch five years ago.
Lillian continued, “And I’m sure there will be a whole selection of handsome young men absolutely besotted with you.”
“You think so?” Madeline considered. “Well, so long as they’re at least interesting. I don’t think I could stand it if all we got was another Jacobs.”
“What was that?” A deep voice echoed out of the storage area ahead as the Jacobs in question stuck his head out. Seeing Lillian and Madeline, he shrugged. “Oh. It’s just you two.” He ducked back into the room.
Madeline looked abashed–albeit only slightly. “Oops,” she said softly.
“Oh don’t worry,” Lillian replied. “You know he likes you, don’t you?” she continued as they stepped into the room.
Jacobs was being just a little too careful hanging his gear up in his locker and Lillian thought she could see a faint blush rising on his neck. His partner Hans was outright snickering into his locker on Jacobs' other side.
Madeline rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue at Lillian as she turned to her locker. After taking a few moments to admire her reflection in the mirror on the inside of the door, she started collecting her equipment.
Lillian turned to her own locker. Between it and her room were all her worldly possessions. As neat as always, her tools were already hung on the Velcro belts that would ensure they stayed put even in areas without Borealis' artificial gravity. With careful but quick movements, she attached her belts and closed the door. Madeline was still stirring about in the bottom of her locker, looking for tools, so Lillian turned to Jacobs.
“New crew today.”
He grunted what was mostly likely an affirmative.
“And new equipment. I wonder if there’s news from Sol?”
Another grunt. Hans turned and looked at her, “Why do you want news? It’s always bad.”
She hesitated, “Because even bad news is more interesting than what happens around here.” She shrugged. Neither of ‘em’s even been here a year yet, she thought. Eventually they’ll be looking forward to the news as much as anyone.
“Got it.” Madeline straightened, brushing the legs of her . “Ready to get to work?”
Lillian guided the shuttle with the practiced ease that comes with years of experience. Since her apprenticeship on Daedalus, she’d always been a gateship engineer–even then piloting had come naturally to her.
Few could stand the strain of floating in the void between stars for years on end, without a sky above or ground below, yet Lillian thrived. She loved knowing exactly how everything on the ship fit together–even if some of the more esoteric details of systems like the gate itself were still a mystery. And when something went wrong, it was almost always a mechanical glitch, easily attributable to the wear and tear common to all machines. Easy to fix.
As she left the shuttle bay and moved towards the damaged section of the hull, she was given a clear view of the Borealis and had to smile. Gateships were terribly important for the future of the human race, but any time she saw one, it just reminded her of a thin metal donut.
The ring contains everything that the human crew of a gateship would need–living quarters, the kitchens, an exercise room, the library, an observation deck (which doubled as a makeshift bar)-and everything to ensure that the mission was a success-storage for anything they would need between the resupply missions, the command and communication sections, and the shuttle bay.
Around the outside of the ring, three massive engines provided the forward thrust of the ship. Enough to accelerate to nine tenths the speed of light without strain and propel the gateship to the stars. On the front of each, a powerful fusion engine harnessed the same forces that drove the stars themselves to power the engines and provide enough power for anything on the ship several times over. Really, the entire ship could have been run off a single reactor, but they would need at least two to open the gate and it never hurt to have a spare.
Along the inner side of the ring, she noted the seven points that were responsible for actually generating the immense electrical grid necessary to open a gate. When activated, an immense electric field of some sort–Lillian had never been able to wrap her head around the exact details–would be generated within the ring, carefully tuned to match another gate back home. When the patterns aligned, a gate–a shortcut in the fabric of reality–would open, allowing instantaneous travel between the two ends. There were so many possible addresses that each star in the entire galaxy–each planet even–could have its own gate with some left over, but so far only a handful had been built.
It was essentially a way to cheat Einstein out of his universal speed limit. Without actually ever traveling faster than the speed of light, the gateships allowed travel between star systems. All that was necessary was a gate at either end set to the same pattern. In general, each gate had a static pattern that was used for incoming connections and maintained at minimal power. When another gate wanted to make a connection, it would set its own gate to that same pattern forming a resonance between the two gates detectable at either end. Then the receiving gate could increase their power to a high enough level to open the wormhole.
Unfortunately, it didn’t seem possible to open a stable gate to just any point in space. There had to be a specifically constructed gate at both ends or the wormhole would collapse almost as soon as it formed, often with disastrous consequences. So they had to carry the gates themselves out to other stars. It was for this reason that the gateships were born. Capable of traveling nine tenths the speed of light, each could fly to a distant star. Once there, the same trip would never have to be made again. Everyone else could just use the gate.
The Borealis was the fourth in the line of gateships–really a remarkable achievement on its own, all things considered–and was on its maiden voyage. Since its launch, three more had been built and two more were under construction. Mankind needed a new Earth, that much was clear. Now it was just a matter of finding one. Since the gates could be used while in transit, it wasn’t necessary to send them with enough supplies to last the entire trip–just enough to last until the next scheduled supply run.
At the cruising speed the gateships attained; time dilation was a problem for some people. Some enjoyed knowing that relative to the people back home, they were jumping through time, aging almost twice as slowly. Others served the minimal three year Sol-time contract–only 18 months on ship–and collected a nice fat paycheck.
Suddenly Lillian was pulled from her thoughts by the sound of a crackle on her radio.
“Hey Lillian, how’s the view?” She recognized Madeline’s voice.
“It’s lovely,” she replied.
“That’s nice. Any chance you could cut the sightseeing tour a little early? I was hoping to actually catch a bite on the observation deck for once. I’m sick of eating on the go.”
Lillian smiled. Come to think of it, that actually did sound nicer than eating wherever they were working for the day.
She turned the cameras on the damage. It looked like a fairly normal impact dent. The shields were run by the same fusion cores that drove the engines, but every once in awhile something still made it through with a bit of its momentum intact. At least they had the shields. Without them, traveling at such a high velocity would make Swiss cheese of the ship in a week, even in interstellar space.
An easy fix, she thought. Shouldn’t be any problem. With Madeline’s help on the shuttle’s arms, it took less than an hour to fix the external damage. They could call up the automated maintenance robots to check the internal damage on the inside and finish it later if anything cropped up. The bots didn’t have the intuition that made human engineers so necessary, but they were awfully good at cleaning up simple problems.
Smiling at a job well done, Lillian headed back to the shuttle bay.
With the shuttle securely parked, they had just enough time to actually grab a full meal on the observation deck–if they hurried. And hurry they did–eating on the observation deck was always worth it.
When they got there, most of the tables were already full, but there was still one near the window on the outer ring of the ship. From there, they couldn’t see the ship itself, but there was a stunning view of the starry sky. Without a nearby star, the sky was always more stunning than even the clearest night back home and today was no exception.
They sat down. During meal times, the observation deck resembled something not unlike a restaurant while in the evenings it was converted into a makeshift bar. There were no set menus, instead you could choose from a variety of dishes that the cook on duty happened to have in mind.
The first thing Lillian did upon sitting down was to scan the night sky directly overhead. With the Borealis aimed directly at Epsilon Eridani, it wasn’t at all hard to find in the dome overhead. Lillian had memorized the sky around it the day they’d set off and they still hadn’t gone far enough to change the stars that much.
She found it in seconds, right beside where the actually transparent part of the ceiling was temporarily interrupted by a projection on the supports that crisscrossed the ceiling. The supports weren’t actually noticeable unless you knew exactly what you were looking for, but Lillian always liked to see their destination with nothing but a single clear pane between them. And trillions and trillions of kilometers–but that went without saying.
While Lillian was staring skywards, Madeline must have checked the menu on the screen built into the table. “Jenkins is on duty today.”
After a moment more, Lillian lowered her gaze back down to the ship that had become her entire world. She replied with a grin. “Jenkins? I guess that means our choices are synthetic meat, fake meat, or meat not even pretending to the name.”
Madeline, a fair weather vegetarian, said, “Hey. I like Jenkins. His dishes have everything a meat lover like you could want and still be friendly for those of us with higher standards.”
“You know it’s not really his choice. Real meat just too expensive to send out to the gateships and it’s easy enough to synthesize a replacement. What I wouldn’t give for a good steak though…”
Steak must have been one of the available meals because the computer perked up at the sound of her voice, “One steak lunch, how would you like that prepared?”
“Might as well. Medium rare please.” She turned to Madeline and stage whispered. “I bet its made out of tofu.” Madeline grinned back at her. It all likelihood, it was.
“Sides?” the computer continued, taking no notice of the comment.
“French fries or steak fries?”
“Steak.” I wonder why they still call them French Fries, Lillian thought. France doesn’t even exist anymore.
“Water is fine.”
“Medium rare steak with steak fries and water. Affirmative.” Through some trick of the speakers in the table, the computer’s voice seemed to turn to Madeline, “And for you?”
“Is the chili vegetarian friendly?”
“A bowl of chili then. And a salad. Oh, and just water for me as well.”
“No thank you.”
“Chili, salad without dressing, and water. Affirmative.”
The panel that had begun glowing while taking their orders dimmed. A pair of small circular opening in the table opened and a glass of water rose in front of each of them.
Madeline picked hers up and took a short sip before asking, “so what was that about earlier?”
“What was what about?”
“You royally spacing out this morning.”
“Oh, I was just enjoying the view.”
“You’ve seen it hundreds of times before.”
“But it still amazes me. Just think of it. Here we are, trillions of kilometers from home, traveling at nine tenths the speed of light. Isn’t that amazing?”
“Sure.” Although she didn’t seem nearly as enthralled as Lillian did.
Undaunted, Lillian continued. “Twenty years ago, we hadn’t even left our own solar system. Now there’s a colony at Centauri 3 and a deep space observatory in the void more than a light year towards Barnard’s Star. Give it another few years and Romulus and Remus will finish their travels and we might just have another two extra-solar colonies. All because of the gateships.”
“And it pays well,” Madeline said with a faint grin.
Lillian had to nod at that. That was what drew most people to the gateships even now. Despite the drawbacks. “And it pays well.”
Madeline must have sensed her mood, because she amended her statement, “I guess it is kind of amazing. I’ve never been out of Sol though until I joined the Borealis, so I guess it just doesn’t seem real.”
Lillian smiled at her. “How about we take a trip to Centauri when we next get some time off? I bet I could get someone on the Daedalus to help sponsor the connection.”
“I’d like that.”
“Well then, it’s a date.” She reached for her water and tilted the glass towards Madeline, who grabbed her own and completed the toast. There was the tinkling sound of glass as they tapped the two together and sipped their water.
Shortly thereafter their dinners arrived. The cook–Jenkins–brought out the dishes, although he could have trusted a variety of robotic servers to do the job.
“Anything else I can do for you ladies?”
“No thank you,” Madeline replied. Lillian shook her head.
“Just let me know.” He headed back to the kitchen.
The food was decent, as expected, somehow enhanced by the view. Especially considering that anyone in the future will just use the gateships, Lillian thought. Noone’s ever going to see this particular view again.