Across The Empty: a Space Shot story

(Photo by Jerry Armstong.)

Space is empty. Utterly empty. You can’t know how empty until you’ve been out here. I know better than most.

I’m a starship captain, which isn’t nearly as cool as it might sound. They strap you to the front of a big engine, aim at a speck of dirt light-years away, light the candle (old saying; we don’t burn rocket fuel anymore), close the gap, give you a few days to explore, then fire the engines one more time to head back home.

You sleep through most of the trip. Both ways.

And for more than 200 years, we shot-nauts — I’ll get to that — returned emptyhanded. I was one of the first. And slated to be one of the last.

Because of the trip they thought would be the last Space Shot. The one that changed everything.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

First came light. Warmth. The acrid smell of espresso mingled with aminos, the brew of choice when you wake after years of dreamless sleep. Caffeine shakes off the chills, and the energetic acids chase out the empty.

I spent the first 20 hours in isolation stretching aching muscles, then running through the sterile hallways of the supply docks that took up most of the length of the wedge-shaped vessel.  There was nothing elegant about our ship, outside or in. Built in orbit, there was no need for sleek surfaces to pierce an atmosphere. And the six-member crew would be awake for only about four weeks of our journey, so we didn’t need pampering.

In fact, there were only a few crates of actual food and drink in those supplies. Most were vats of jells to be pumped into our veins while we slept, serviced by robots.

The guidelines say when you wake from stasis, you spend 72 hours alone, eating soft food, drinking thick protein shakes and readjusting to reality. Some shot-nauts in the early years had vivid dreams to shake off, though better drugs have ended that.

I always found it hard to relax and wait through three full earth days. Always out in front was the target, a destination that hundreds of sharp young minds had decided was something special. In this case, an erratic object orbiting a pinpoint of nothingness, a collapsed star with huge gravitational pull that acted as an astrophysical trash can.

The erratic was our target. Not a planet; they agreed on that. Possibly an asteroid, a meteor or a comet. But with properties unseen elsewhere in the galaxy.

I wanted to see it from the flight deck. To look out at the empty like a kid looking out at the ocean and wondering what was on the other side. But the ocean isn’t empty. Space is.

 

He was kicking back in the center of four chairs facing a wall-sized video screen, which showed the view dead ahead. “Oh, it’s you, Max,” he said. “I was hoping they’d wake one of the ladies first.”

He was reclined in a seat with a high back with various control panels on either side. The viewscreen was perhaps 10 feet in front of the four command chairs, and curved so that it surrounded anyone who was sitting down in them.

I crawled into one next to him; it wasn’t a small room, with several stations to the rear. But from the front it seemed like this four-chair pod was all there was, surrounded by the stars shown on the screen.

“Hey Danny,” I said. “How long you been up”

“A week,” he said. “Getting things restarted. Everything’s on track. Just been waiting for company. Female would have been nice. The tall one, Gentile, she digs me, I can tell. And being asleep for 20 years leaves me a little needy.”

I laughed. It wasn’t that he was past 50 – way past, depending on how you added it up — and that she was about 24. It was that she was a cipher: DNA tweaked for long space journeys, embedded with a massive hard drive, trained to be a scientist and interested in little else.

“Nice idea, but we’re men out of time, my friend. The young ones aren’t much into physical contact, and they’re all young compared to us.”

He laughed. “You’d be surprised, kid. I’m from a whole ‘nother century. This is my ninth Space Shot. No one else has half that many. Every scientist wants to handle a relic.”

I gave him a grin, then pulled one of the control panels to my lap, tuning in the scanner. Part of the screen in front of me switched to a new image. It focused not on stars, but a patch of black between stars. I mag’ged it up, 100 times, 1,000 times. You could almost see the edge.

“Our black hole. You can only tell by the absence of light, and the debris around it,” he told me. “And our target is there. Spitting out energy like a son of a bitch.”

I switched the spectrum, ran the magnetic lines. Did some calculations in my head, more using the keypad. Played back the computer’s complex calculations for our orbital dance. Finally, I said, “right on course.”

“Kid, I’ve been the best pilot in the universe for a couple of centuries now,” Daniel said. “Who better to drive the last shot?”

 

The Space Shots started in the second half of the 21st century. A young scientist came up with the theory for a partial quantum drive, capable of firing a spacecraft deep into the empty at nearly the speed of light. And bringing it back. What would become the Global Space Agency started assembly not long after.

These would not be sci-fi space cruisers bopping about at a captain’s whim; as with rockets, the fuel requirements of getting a craft up to such speeds, slowing it, then reversing course to home prohibited much beyond out and back.

GSA shot spacecraft at carefully selected targets. Then waited to see what they came back with. Space Shots, which is why we’re called shot-nauts. They could have used robots, but you needed real people to make decisions when facing the unknown at a distance where instructions from home would take years to arrive.

Bots are great at tasks, though, so for most of the time spent on these missions, they run things. Shot-nauts travel in stasis, suspended animation, to be activated only near the destination. The closest stars were more than four light years away. The shortest trips would last a decade. This one would last 39 years.

As nice as it would be to go faster, Einstein is a bitch. Mass increases with velocity; the quantum engines could control that somewhat, but reaching light speed remained impossible. Time also slows down while traveling even close to it; on our ship, less than a decade would pass. That mattered little since we barely aged as we slept. But the world would change dramatically while we were gone.

You ended up with people like Daniel. In nine missions, he’d been awake a total of 160 days in deep space, and he’d lived life for just 25 years over a century and a half if you included training and time off duty. His physical age was basically 50 years. But he’d been born 223 years before he was launched on this last shot.

There were pluses to living outside of time. As one of the first, Daniel returned home a celebrity with decades of pay in the bank. He was popular and prosperous. But celebrity can be tiresome, and everyone he’d grown up with was old or dead. He was a man out of time. He signed up to go again.

“It’s easiest to stay in the program,” he told me once. “It changes, too, but at the core it’s something you know.”

Of course, he was one of the luckier pioneers. The first Space Shot returned from Alpha Proxima with lots of data and a dead astronaut; feed systems failed, and he starved to death in his sleep. The second shot returned two years later, with a live pilot. But stasis had failed. He’d been awake and alone for 16 years, and lost it. Spent the rest of his life reciting lines from old TV shows to himself, unaware of anyone around him.

Daniel had gone on Space Shot three — which launched before the first one had returned, so it was a leap of faith. He had traveled a dozen years each way to a star not unlike our own where they’d spotted six planets. But two were orbiting about as close as Mercury to our sun, far too hot for life. The one nearest Earth’s orbit had a methane atmosphere. The others were distant and cold.

Still, he came back healthy, and after the failures, that was progress. The next two Shots brought more deaths, but bigger crews and more survivors as well. Daniel went back on the seventh, where he found a burned-out planet torched by solar flares, but with something unique. Could have been toasted stone formations, or buildings fallen to ruin. But it held out hope we’d find something in the empty.

But that was as close to success as we came. Shots went off about once a year, each taking a bit longer to return, each going a bit farther. And coming back with little to show for it.

This was my sixth flight, starting with Shot 8. I knew what Daniel felt, though I’d never had the same success or experienced celebrity. I was a 21st century man living in the 24th. The shots were all I knew.

But our home was hurting, and people had grown tired of the cost. The earth had survived a lot of things in those years, both manmade — atomic weapons, global scorching, deoxygenation – and natural. It was strapped, running out of resources.

Plus, the most hopeful stars were getting farther away. Sure, you could send someone 100 light years from Earth, but would humanity be there when they returned?

The targets had shifted to what we called erratics, slightly closer objects that didn’t behave like most of the others in the sky. Spectacular things, but all just as dead. We’d found no life out in the empty.

Our Space Shot, they said, was likely the last of them. And our object was the most erratic of all.

 

One week after I awoke, the ship was a hub of activity. Six of us — Daniel and I, the pilots; astrobiologist Michael Drake; solar specialist Katrina Guest; engineer Turk Ochar; and the lovely Gentile Trimark, an astrophysicist — were kept busy either loading and checking the shuttle or scanning the many bits of debris that floated in orbit around the black hole.

Some 17 light years from earth, Gravitational Anomaly 27-H pulled a vast cloud of matter toward it unceasingly, and almost constantly one object or another flew into its inner core with a burst of light. You had to watch closely because little in the way of light or heat could escape the pull of the super-dense star.

The star had no surface and no true circumference. It was merely a circle from which nothing escaped, with a singularity at its core that drank light and warped time.

We were in serious danger. It would take just a small error in our course to be caught up in the black sun’s gravity and never see home again.

But the GravAn wasn’t our target. We were aimed at an object the size of a small moon, rotating almost 100 million miles from the singularity. Astronomers had begun studying the black hole sometime in the middle of my century and recognized that this object at one point in its orbit emitted a flash of energy in Earth’s direction.

By backtracking, studying old data with newer methods, it became clear this flash had gone on for decades, at least. The object’s orbit tightened regularly, taking it ever closer to the black hole. It would eventually be consumed. But the flash remained aimed squarely at Earth and came at the same point in its orbit.

It was like nothing else ever discovered in space. We hoped that meant it was not a coincidence.

 

Daniel did what he did in those short days; flirting went out with the 22nd century, but not for him.

Truth it, I’d developed a thing for Katrina during our training. Perhaps because she was like so many female shot-nauts I’d know. Close-cropped hair – auburn — high cheekbones, short and fit, and just brilliant. Her eyes burned with intelligence, and her focus was stunning.

I only approached her once during the trip.

“Staying busy?” I asked as she worked alone at a com in one of the main deck studios.

She was looking away from the door and from me, focused on the screens. “Trying to cut shuttle weight. We need to make all the speed we can for the recovery. Danny has to make a 75% orbit to be able to pick us up, and while the mother ship is slowing, it’ll still be at a third light.”

I noticed one of the monitors was showing images of rubble, the blocks we’d been passing. “See anything in these?” I asked, and she had to turn to see what I was pointing out.

“Gathering data. Seeing things, sure, but your eyes play tricks on you in the dark.” She started to look back to the monitors, but instead stayed with me. “What did you really want?” she asks.

Caught me. “Just wanted to check in.”

Was that a subtle laugh? “Yea. I think our other 21st century man is checking in a lot on Gentile.”

I should have said something. She spoke because I didn’t. “It’s OK. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t remove our emotions when they tweak us for space flight. We just learn not to get too involved. You train with some and become… friends. But next time, I might go on a 50-year mission, you back in 20, someone else gone 70. Nothing is permanent when time is meaningless.”

She turned back to work.

“But this is the last Space Shot, or so they say,” I reminded her.

“That’s bittersweet for those of us bred for this program. My parents started the mods in the womb, turned me over to the GSA at 10. Better life than we could hope for, they said. I learned early that nothing lasts. I guess this doesn’t, either.”

“Do you remember them at all.”

She leaned back in her chair, lost somewhere.

“Snippets. I remember once, we were on the beach. I faced the waves. My father held my shoulders. Cold water on my feet as my toes squished into the sand. Staring out to the ocean, which seemed so empty. But there were whole worlds on the other side. This, out here. This is empty. There might be nothing on the other side.”

 

When the day finally arrived, five of us filed down into the main hold. Danny would stay in the mothership. Gentile lingered and was last to the bay; the old guy might have worked his magic, because she had a farewell to say.

In the hold, we boarded a bus of a ship with wings and a wide tail designed to fly in an atmosphere. Some shots had found planets with atmospheres.

We expected no such thing here. But the shots used off-the-shelf components.

I took the left side of the front pair of seats, grabbed my headgear and logged in. Turk sat in beside me.

“Danny, you got us?” I said into the microphone.

“Roger,” he said in my ear — well, to all of us, in all our ears. “Go ahead with systems check. Separation in 6 minutes and counting.”

Everyone had a panel in front of them, with buttons to press and lights to watch during separation. They were mostly for entertainment. I’ve read that the first astronauts had to insist on a window and controls; humans weren’t really needed to run those capsules, either.

“Tell me again why we’re all packed in here?” Kat complained. Most of us laughed.

Out in the great empty, of course, we did matter. When we closed in, the crew would aim every sort of beacon and radiation at the irregularity to try to figure out what it was. But unless we found a place to land, there was little of that work they couldn’t have done from the mothership.

And the object promised little. It was cylindrical, rounded on the ends and spinning fast. A flat black in color, with no discernible features.

“Just hold it in, Kat,” Turk said, all business.

I liked her even more for the offense. I turned and gave her a wink, but I said, “Let’s just do our jobs.” And eventually,” OK Danny, we’re go for separation.”

“Countdown from 10…9…8… good trip folks.”

“5… 4… 3…” I continued.

“2… 1… and go. Released.”

The shuttle slipped out of the cargo bay and into its own orbit of the black star. “See you on the other side,” Turk told Danny. “Don’t be late,” was the response.

I barely heard him. This was a critical time. “Go for burn in 3… 2… 1…”

The little craft’s engines fired harshly, shaping its path into an orbit on the Earth side of the black star parallel to that of the erratic. We could see, briefly, the main craft as it headed off. “You are go for 11 hours,” Danny said.

Danny was off on a long journey around the back of the star, executing a wide, elliptical orbit. The route would use the massive gravitational pull to further slow the mothership – we’d been slowing for weeks — and to turn it.

We would cut in front of the star, scan the erratic and rejoin the main craft coming around the other side of the black star. We would have one chance at that rendezvous. Then the main craft would have to fire its big engines to get up to star-cruising speed.

If we missed, it couldn’t slow down to wait, or it risked being caught by the black hole’s pull. Danny would be heading home alone.

Eleven hours isn’t much. Sometimes the Space Shots give you days or weeks at a target. But against the pull of a black star, we couldn’t linger.

 

“Coming up on the object,” I told the rest after three of those hours had ticked past. 10 miles, a blink out here in the void. We wouldn’t orbit it, the way we would a planet. Just match its orbit around the dead sun.

“I have it,” Gentile said. “Closing fast. Seems to absorb most of my signals. Anyone getting anything? Cylindrical, 240 meters long.”

“Nothing that looks like a landing spot. And it is spinning,” Drake said.

“Hang on, there’s something,” Katrina said. “There’s one demarcation. A recessed surface, definitely a different material. Maybe twice as wide as our shuttle, twice again as long.”

I told them I’d take us closer. Soon we were within 300 meters, hovering above the spinning surface.

“That’s impossible,” I heard Drake say. We all waited for him.

“Look, what this adds up to can’t be right, but here goes,” he continued. “We’re only seeing this gap once for each 720 degrees of rotation. That’s what the object takes to make a full rotation. It’s a spin 2 particle. A single particle.”

Part of my job was to keep the theoreticians in check. “Drake, spins measure subatomic particles. This is a sizable object.”

“But,” he said, “what better way to build a spaceship than as one giant particle, not a mass of atoms?”

“It’s a little early to call this a spaceship,” Gentile clipped in.

I pulled our ship to within a hundred meters. The gap seemed now to be a door, blinking past every other time the object rotated.

The lights we shined on the object showed no other features, just a reflected sheen. The demarcation, the gap, seemed to absorb even that light. It was rectangular, with sharp corners. Nothing about this object looked natural.

“All right, let’s drop a probe,” I said, and Turk went to work. It was a basketball-sized gadget, with various antennae and a small propulsion system. It added new visuals to the dozens of waves we were already bombarding the object with — gammas, x-rays, UVs and more.

It descended slowly, timed to find the demarcation in the object’s clean surface.

Then something changed. The spin stopped, the surface variation now holding in place beneath us, in line with the probe as the machine continued downward.

Then the probe touched the surface, and then passed through it. The material offered no resistance.

And then all signals from the probe disappeared. “It’s gone,” Turk said, not loudly; we all knew. He was on the controls for the device, but we were all watching it on our individual screens.

One minute passed. And then it was back, hovering again above the object’s surface, sending back streams of data.

“It is an opening,” I told everyone. “The probe is on automatic return. It loses contact when it goes inside, and reverses course.”

Gentile was reviewing the data. “The erratic is hollow inside, or mostly. There might be a structure in the center, and near one end. Hard to tell much with just a minute of video. We could send the probe in on a timed loop, program it to give a better look around.”

“Screw that,” Turk said. “We came a long way and we’ve got about five hours left. It’s time for a human probe.”

 

He slipped into the lower hold and put on one of the EVA suits and the elaborate retro-pack that went with it. He was jetting out of our craft in just a few minutes.

“OK, I’m 90 feet from the anomaly, closing 20 per minute toward the — door? Not sure what to call it. Giving it a little jet now.”

He gave us a careful blow-by-blow. “70 feet now. 60. Releasing a tether.” It was not a line, but an electronic tracker designed to sit directly over the opening and relay his signal to us. “Ok, that’s 30… 20. On it now.”

Nerves ran high, at least inside our ship. Turk was cool. He dipped his hand out; it seemed to disappear, as if into fluid. Like dipping a finger into black paint. Forget the fears. He was able to pull the hand out again. “It’s porous. I’m going through.”

Turk tweaked a jet and he was across the threshold, into the object. Couldn’t see him on the other side of the opening. He went silent, too, as the probe had done. Minutes passed as we waited.

“Let me know the moment you detect… anything,” I told the crew.

And then he was out, or half out. We could hear him and see his head and the top of his torso. “It’s goddam big in here. No way this is natural. There’s plenty of room for our whole craft.

“There’s a platform in the middle. It’s attached to one end of the cylinder, where there’s a structure. Extends about half way. The rest is open.

“I’m going back, and I’ll land on that platform. If there’s really a there in there, you should do the same.”

And then he sank back into the object. We heard nothing.

 

It had taken three hours and now 45 minutes from separation to reach this spot. We’d need three to reach the pickup. That left us with four and a quarter. We couldn’t just sit here, hoping Turk returned.

Katrina broke the silence. “The gap is entirely stable. Easily twice the length of our ship, and twice as wide.”

“And sitting there like an invitation,” Gentile added.

I already had a course plotted in. We had no clue what this object was, but it had pointed a door to us. Welcomed us. I had no idea how I should feel. Relieved? Celebratory? Scared?

The kids of the modern age never show much emotion. I settled for what I thought they’d prefer: efficiency. Make a call. “I say we go inside. Can’t guarantee we get out again. Objections?”

I heard none. The kids were committed. No one voiced any second thoughts.

Drake was the only one who spoke. “Loading all our data into a com probe. If nothing else, the probe will send findings thus far to the mothership when it passes.”

“100 feet.” I counted it down. “90. 80. Closing quickly. 50.”

“The opening is stable,” Kat reassured me.

“OK, that’s 20. 10. We’re in.” The controls bucked slightly, like a light plane against a north wind, as we crossed the threshold.

And then everything opened up. We were in an enclosed space, many times the volume of our ship. The object looked bigger inside than out.

“It’s empty,” I told them. “Plenty of room to maneuver. I’ll try to get a fix on the entrance we used.”

That proved all but impossible, at least to my eyes. There was a row of doors both above and below us now, now spinning around the center of the interior wall like a wheel. You could see through them from this side. Each showed a different scene of stars, and some showed planets and other objects.

“Turk, you out there?”

“Yeah, Max. Just above you. You see the doors? Outside one of them, I swear I saw a whole fleet of spaceships. Some sort of port.”

I waved it off, though. Tried to get my bearings. There was a structure at one end of whatever we were in. Extending from it, a solid arm.

“It’s a platform,” Turk said. “Perpendicular to your craft in the center of the object. Very solid, I’ve been down. You’ll find some sort of gravity as you get close.”

I bounced radar signals off the surface he was talking about and glided to a landing. It came with a bump. An artificial gravity was in play, and it held the ship to the platform.

 

In just a few minutes, the rest of us were out.

I felt more than a little vertigo. Our craft was sitting on its pegs on a smooth, glasslike surface of metal colored the same black as the – well, whatever it was we were in. This platform extended to the middle of the spin chamber from one of its ends.

The others were also now looking up and studying the row of doors. Turk was there, too, landing, standing and clipping out of his jets. “Amazing, eh?” Turk said over the com links. “Dozens of exits, to different star patterns. I’d say each is a portal. A galactic transit system.”

“Why don’t we see if the science measures up to your theory?” Gentile told him.

“There’s one other thing,” Katrina said. “I’m detecting an atmosphere in here. Almost exactly Earth normal.”

That’s when I noticed she was popping her helmet open. “Jeesus, are you insane? That’s not safe.”

“What, do you think someone builds a giant spin particle, invites us inside, then tries to fool us with a fake atmosphere? Recognize what this is. Contact. The most important discovery anywhere, ever.”

Just then, as if to celebrate, our ship launched a basketball-sized recorder upwards. Then spinning wheel paused, our door above it. It flew through. With any luck, we could exit the same way.

A stark reminder of the clock. We had less than four hours to launch again if we hoped to make our rendezvous. “Let’s go in,” Kat said. “I can’t wait to see this.”

The others headed off, but as I opened my helmet, Turk put a hand on my shoulder. “I’m going back up. Maybe out.”

“What do you mean?”

“That door I spotted. Looks like a planet beyond, and a whole fleet of craft. I have to know what they are.”

I let him know I thought it was suicide. “You don’t know how long it would take to reach those objects, or even if you can get back. We can’t wait for you. We can’t miss our window.”

He was OK with the possibility. “I have a chance to go farther than anyone has ever traveled. If I don’t make it back, it’s still worth it.”

“I can’t make a call like this.”

“I can. It’s in the mission rules for every Space Shot. If a crew member has a chance for contact or a reasonable cause for further explorations, he or she can opt not to return.”

He knew I wouldn’t stop him. The jets kicked in. I watched him rise, then disappear into a door. I saw what he saw beyond, but were those shapes ships, or space junk, or stone debris?

He’d know soon enough. If he stayed out too long, the rest of us would never know.

 

I followed the path off the platform, then into a mass of black walls that led into a wide room of what looked like control panels and seats. Familiar enough, anyway, to guess at its purpose.

Gentile was there, a camera aimed at a broad table. A projection above its surface showed a black object with an intense glow. There were two other circles at the perimeter, two suns.

A course was marked connecting them, and a tiny image of this cylinder followed it. But as it looped the black object in the center, it spat fire, slowed, then went into orbit around the black object instead of moving on.

Then the image replayed, with more detail. There were two-star systems, each a great distance from the black object. The cylinder left one system, from a pleasantly red planet, its intended path traced in light around the object and headed to the second. Then the fire, and it never completed is journey.

In the second system, a blue planet, third from a sun.

“Let’s say this thing was headed to Earth,” Gentile said. “It never made it, so it’s been signaling instead. Maybe the planet it started from as well. Do you know what that means? It would have changed the whole of history.”

 

I left her to finish examining the room. Farther on sat a series of coffinlike cabinets, with glass lids. Not unlike stasis pods, but empty. One was only partially open, and inside was a thick jelly, dried to the surface. “I’m taking samples,” Drake told me. “As quiet as this place is, this may be as much of its creators as we find.”

Farther on, I heard voices. Two of them, which was impossible.

Katrina was speaking to a wavering figure, made of light. Vaguely human, though without much in the way of distinctive features. “I am here to serve. Where do you wish to go?”

“Who are you?” she asked, to ask something.

“I am nothing. The voice of this station. Where do you wish to go?”

There were a million questions to be asked, and Katrina was only overwhelmed for a moment. “Home. But that’s a long way. You know that?”

The figure seemed to recognize her. “I know. Sadly, Katrina, we cannot send you to where you originated. This machine connects points in space, but there is no point near your world.”

Kat was eager to quiz it. “How do you know me? How can you even speak English?”

“I know many things. And I am equipped with translation devices,” it said. “After downloading your systems’ memories, language was simple enough.”

“You’ve stolen our files? Then can you upload yours? We’d be grateful.”

She was sharp. Always thinking. The machine sounded almost amused at the thought. “That would take days, and likely burn out your systems. You do not have days. Unfortunate. I have much to tell you, Katrina, and much I was supposed to share with your world.”

The answer wasn’t good enough for me, so I jumped in. “What is this place? Who made it?”

“It is, as you have guessed, a waystation. Every particle in the universe can be connected with any other particle. You know this concept as quantum entanglement. Places are simply collections of particles. This object links places.

“The Creators left many years ago, after the damage. We have only about two of your years left unless they return to save it. It does have value, so I have not given up hope.”

The initial answers were unfeeling, mostly robotic. But they seemed to grow more, well, human in just a few minutes. This AI seemed sad at the prospect of its end.

It took my questions, but its attention was focused on Katrina. “Perhaps while your comrades gather information, we can chat more about all this.”

 

The next hours were spent digging through the place, such as we could. I grabbed anything loose, while Drake and Gentile took images and readings.

Katrina spent her time talking to the cipher. I heard only snippets. I should have listened more closely.

The time to go neared. I loaded my finds onto our craft, then stepped back out as Drake and Gentile boarded. I called to Katrina, the last, to meet me by our ship.

I looked up to that row of doors, those moving panes of stars. The last hour had melted to 20 minutes.

“Is Turk here?”

Katrina had shown up, finally. “No sign of him. We’ll wait as long as we can?”

“You’ll have a little less weight, so some extra fuel,” she told me. “You’re going back without me.”

“What?” I asked, snapping to give her my full attention.

“Max, I wish I could tell you all I know. I’ve learned more in the past few hours than in a lifetime of study. I will keep learning. It’s what I was born for. And if someone comes to salvage this portal, I will be the first human to contact another species.”

“It’s a million times more likely,” I told her, “that you and this portal will fall into the black star before we even get home. Anything you learn will be lost along with you.”

Of course, she knew that. “I learned this from you 21st century men. It’s better to dive into the unknown than be bored by what you know. I was bred to learn. There’s more to learn, so I must stay.”

She kept trying to convince me. “I’ll keep a comsat here. Maybe two. I can fly them and they can upload to Earth. And who knows, maybe I’ll get back. You don’t know.”

“Don’t trust what this AI is telling you,” I told her. “He may just want a little company while he waits for his end.”

“He is a computer, Maxwell,” she told me. “A logical being. The odds of such desires are slim.”

That wasn’t what I cared about. She was my crew; I was responsible. More than that, like I said, I had a thing. There was no use arguing, but I argued anyway. As we unloaded a retro-pack and an extra suit for her. A comsat rig. Food and water, even though the AI said it had systems it could adapt.

“It’s OK,” she told me, sounding like she knew something unknowable. “I can’t really say why, but it’s OK. Do one thing for me, though?”

“Of course.”

“Promise you’ll find an ocean. Dip your toes in. Look for me in the night sky. It’ll almost be like I’m home.”

 

Six minutes. I warmed the engines and watched the doors spinning above. No Turk.

Four. I fired the engines on the craft gently, and we rose toward the gates. As much as I’d warned her about the AI, I had to count on it now. Nerves at full alert. Would we hit wall? Or pass the wrong door?

But the doors shifted, or the rotation changed pace. Something. Then we were outside, and I spotted both the probe we’d launched and the tracker we’d left.

Two minutes to spare, and we were ready to go. We couldn’t wait anyway.

“Burning in 3… 2… 1…”

The engine turned us and stretched our orbit into a path away from the dark star. The flow was smooth; you could almost feel the gravity we had to escape. Acceleration picked up with every mile of distance we put behind us.

I stayed on high alert until the computers confirmed they had the mothership on track. Ran the engines to match its speed. Saw the open airlock door.

I could praise my brilliant flying, but all I had to do after that was follow the automation. Rendezvous complete. Crew incomplete.

 

We traveled home at 0.8 light speed. Our datastream at the speed of light beat us to Earth.

Things started changing before we even got home. There were new Space Shots lined up. New strip mines on the Moon and a couple of asteroids to dig out the materials needed for propulsion. A resupply base planned near Alpha Centauri.

Another race had sent us an invitation, but it got lost out there in the empty. We’d have to find them ourselves. Or lose ourselves trying.

I took some time off. Dipped my toes in the ocean and looked up at the stars. I wanted to quit but found I couldn’t. I was drawn to the empty like a kid to the ocean. I’d keep going until I got lost out there.

The way Turk had. The way Katrina had. The way so many others would. Human nature. We need to know what’s on the other side of the empty.