The Lost Shot-naut: A Space Shot story

Image by Ima Artist from Pixabay

This is the fourth Space Shot story. You might also like the first. Across the Empty, The Woman Who Almost Fell To Earth, and Triangulation

By Ron Prichard

I awoke feeling the gentle vibration of a maintenance engine to find a half dozen technicians gathered around me. Lights too bright, noise too loud as they failed to realize I was out of freeze.

I couldn’t move. They sped about frantically.

“We need the ce-fib,” I heard someone yell, and then a shout for the cerefibrillator – the thing they use on your brain when it won’t restart the automated processes that keep you alive.

Tried to shift my body, couldn’t. I could see but I couldn’t blink. Two, three doctors over me. Did that one have a scalpel?

I couldn’t talk. Or even moan. Probably couldn’t have been heard over the alarms anyway.

When you come out of hypersleep you’re supposed to awaken slowly in a dark, solitary room. The machines phase down and your brain picks up control of those natural processes. You awaken wrapped in the comfort of a pod, the door open to the air. Eventually the quiet voice of a shipmate, usually not in the same room, is there to keep you calm.

This was the opposite of that. Welcome to the madness, please join in if you can.

But then I blinked. I could shift my eyes.

A grey-haired doctor, at least judging by his mask. He caught it. “Wait, he’s moving. I think he’s out of it.”

I tried to give a weak thumbs up. Not sure it worked.

“You OK? Almost lost you, friend.”

Another voice, a woman’s, outside my line of sight. Calm now. The room had lost its fever. “Close call. Took a while to get you out of it. That’s probably the longest anyone’s ever been in sus-am.”

I tried to smile or shift my head, something. I guess it worked. The doctor leaned close and spoke. “We’ll move you to the recovery suite now. Try to relax. We’re leaving monitors on and you’re strapped down. When you can undo them, you’re probably OK to move around.”

It was a nice cabin, with a sizable enough bed for one that was much more comfortable than the gurney. An exterior window, but the shade screen locked up tight. Shelves on one wall and a two-foot wide closet. A desk and chair opposite, a kitchenette with just a boiler, sink and heater. All in a nice gray matching the seats.

A few weeks in such a cramped room and it would be live in – trashed — but for now it was immaculately clean.

It was a few hours before I could take in my surroundings. My arms and legs tingled, and I couldn’t really move them for a while.

I undid the elastic straps around my hands, then my chest and belly, and then I could sit up. Freed my legs as well. Not hard; these were just to keep me in place in case I jerked around as I came out of it. Similar restraints had held me in my cocoon way back when, as I’d faded into drugged sleep, before my body went fully into hibernation.

Finally, I could stand, and eventually walk around a bit. There were energy drinks in the little fridge, and the water tasted good. A few simple meals awaited heating as well. Soft foods were the best bet after an extended hibernation.

It bothered me that the window wouldn’t open. The exterior door wouldn’t, either, but I expected that. No one wanted a disoriented sleep-naut getting lost, falling down or opening the wrong lock.

I also couldn’t shave what in full time would be a two-week growth of beard. No blades. Most of those who hibernated now came out of it fine, but the lore of ages past warned of suicide.

I tried the comscreen. No line out, apparently, and all I could get was music and ancient history.

Which was odd. The rules for coming out of hibernation prescribed almost three weeks of recovery. You exercised and usually read up on years of news to get your bearings. Couldn’t do much exercise in this room, and I had no access to news data.

I think just then I realized I was on a moving ship. You learn the feeling when you’ve been out in space as long as I have. I wasn’t on the mining colony I’d been aiming for when I’d left the planet we’d discovered, EDN 247, or on the station that orbited the mining colony. You can tell the difference between an orbital station and moving vessel.

Where was I?

In space travel, if you miss what you’re aiming for, you don’t bump into something else. Space is the great empty. Those who go off target just disappear.

I think it was three days later when the door buzzer went off. I let him in.

The doctor I’d seen, Devin Chalmers, was also the captain in charge of this ship. It made sense, given its mission. “Hope you’re feeling better.” He knew I was, no doubt. Sensors in the chamber would have let him monitor me.

“Still dazed,” I told him. “Not much space in this room to move around and shake it off. And is it just 3 days? Standard recuperation is 10.”

“It was once,” he offered. “Not so much anymore. And we thought it best to keep you isolated, given the circumstances. We have some questions, and you will as well.”

I told him I appreciated the company. This wasn’t where I’d expected to wake up.

“Yes, and that’s your fault, in a way,” he said. “You discovered EDN. Eden. The first planet in centuries of exploration we’ve capable of supporting life. The moment your reports reached Earth, Eden became the sole focus of Earth’s space program. All the colonies, including the mines on Gilese, were abandoned. Everyone was called home except a few who were aimed directly for Eden.

“By the time your craft reached Gilese, the mining complex was empty. It didn’t have the fuel to get to Earth. So the craft left you in suspended animation and went into hibernation itself until we picked you up. Here’s where you are now.”

He stood and entered something into one of the touchpads. The big wall screen came on. The picture, like a window, was of a vast craft, much of it skeletal carbon fiber and steel. A front pod that we were probably in, and then dozens of what looked like small landing craft attached in a web. At the back, a vast engine section.

There was nothing to give it all scale, but the details suggested it was big.

“This is the fifth of five colony vessels. Each of those landing pods holds 50 people in hibernation, and there are 1,000 of them. All told, we’ll have carried 250,000 people to our destination. Enough to establish a self-sustaining colony. Here.”

He switched the view, and I saw it. A planet with rolling oceans, much of the land brown. But the tip of one continent, near the equator, appeared green and lush. The planet orbited in a twin-star system, weather and gravity affected by two huge spheres. Only that one area had the right mix of temperature, weather and light to flourish naturally.

The planet was EDN 247. Suzuki and I had called it Eden.

“The colony is along the southern coast. Growing rapidly. The green area is expanding as well as we farm and plant. A lot happened while you were out.

“You see, Earth knew you were off Gilese, but you were stuck, way off the current travel lines. Might have been there forever. The experts thought it worth diverting this ship; they have questions, as I said. But you really owe our colonists. They had to vote to stretch their trip so we could reach you.”

“So how long was I out there?”

He paused. He knew it would be a shock. Eden was 37 light years from Gilese, which would have meant a 40-year trip. Four decades in hypersleep, if all had gone well. But I knew 40 years would not have gotten so many from Earth and Gilese to Eden.

“My friend, it’s been 181 years.”

Now, I’m a 21st century man. I’m used to giving up 10, 20, 30 years of time during long Space Shots, our name for the space missions we shot out into the void looking for life. You woke up on the other side to see what was there, then slept again on the return trip.

But a century and a half. Eighteen decades. That was a new one.

It also didn’t quite add up, as I spun it in my head. It wasn’t long enough, give the distances. “The trip to Gilese – 40 years, OK. But Earth is 60 years from Eden. There’s no way the report we sent from Eden would have beaten me to Gilese, much less Earth. No way Gilese would have been empty when I got there.”

He nodded and moved close to where I was sitting. On a sofa opposite the viewscreen.

“That’s one of our questions. Your message from Eden to Earth only took about 8 years to arrive. Communication moving much faster than lightspeed. And attached to your communications were instructions for a new type of engine, a faster-than-light drive. Physics to beat Einstein, if only twice the speed of light.

“You sent back two impossible things humans had long dreamed of, a second homeworld and faster-than-light travel. That’s why Earth acted quickly. Gilese and two other bases were shut immediately with a first wave of settlers headed to Eden.

“The question is how. There was nothing in your background to suggest you’d be the one to break Einstein. Suzuki, the woman you traveled with to Eden, was more the engineer and more of a mystery. But there’s no sign she could do that math or scope out the engineering. I mean, the message wasn’t only a theory. It was a spec.”

I had no more clue about it than he did. “We didn’t break anything. Einstein is law. We knew if we stayed there, we’d die before Earth even knew what we’d found. That’s why I left; I needed to know that the word of what we found got back. Suzuki was fine with anonymity. I wasn’t.”

The doctor laughed. People go into space for a lot of reasons. Thirst for fame didn’t impress him much. “Well, neither of you has anonymity. You’re quite famous. On Earth, and more so on Eden. And the engineering, we call them Mystery Engines. All deep-space craft use them, and their power systems run much else.

“Even though we don’t really know why they work. We’ve tried to speed them up, vary the power flow. But alter the spec in any significant way and they shut down.

”Anyway, I know you headed to Gilese and hoped to go on to Earth. You won’t get there on this ship. But if we hadn’t collected you, you’d never be anywhere.”

I think that’s when it hit me. This ship, these colonists, weren’t ever going back to Earth. This was a one-way trip. That’s a big thing, finding out someone else has decided you’ll never see your world again.

But I guess it was better than floating in artificial sleep forever, or at least until the fuel cells ran out.

There was a shudder in the ship. I looked on reflex to the screen, like it was a window. It was showing a scanned shot of Eden. “Nothing to worry about. We’re close,” he told me. “We left you in sus-am after picking you up; a skeleton crew got you and then they went back under, too. Now my core team is awake, and we’re waking the pilots. Those in the shuttles we’ll awake on the planet.”

Something buzzed, loud and blaring. A device the captain-doctor carried. More buttons. A face on the screen, a young woman, from what looked like a control center. “Captain, we need you. We have a power issue.”

“Come with me,” he said, not at all panicked. Not yet.

The control room was broad and dimly lit. A dozen seats at desks bearing various panels, aimed at a forward window. Eden was there, filling perhaps a third of it.

Several crew members, including the young woman who’d called Devin. There were buzzers still going off, but not loudly, background noise now.

“What is it?” he asked her, or the group. She responded, briskly and efficiently. Some of the others had a panicked look. Not her.

“We’ve lost propulsion. Also some life support, anything powered by the Mystery Engines. Running on batteries.”

Devin pushed someone seated at the central panel to the side, tapped some buttons. “Can we get it back? Is there a fix?”

“Not immediately,” she said. “The problem is that nothing shows as wrong. It’s almost like it was meant to do this. To just turn off.”


A second officer spoke. “Eden is alerted. We’re pathing with their help. But they’re busy. This isn’t isolated. There are a half-dozen ships in orbit and two stations using the same source engines. All have lost power.

I looked over his shoulder. It displayed a course readout, our ship into orbit. An optimal line and one much lower. “Can we make orbit?” he asked.

There was a pause, which he knew was an answer. “How many pilots do we have awake?”

“About a third of the four-person crews.”

“Then let’s divide them. Separate the landers as soon as we can. They don’t use the same engines for landing.” He turned his attention to me. “You can fly, right? You’ll take one with me.”

I mumbled yes. I was close to a window, looking at something that had caught my eye,

A moon’s distance from the planet. A shape, black, a cylinder. “That object,” I asked he and his team. “Has it always been there?”

The woman warned they were busy. But someone else had punched something up. “No, in fact it appeared as we entered this system. Eden has been on high alert.”

Black cylinder, spinning fast. I’d seen one like it before, on a Space Shot mission. Orbiting a black star, caught in its gravity, a lifetime from Earth many lifetimes ado.

I’d led a crew there. We’d found our way inside to a vast chamber, and then a landing area and a control center. Found it abandoned, except for an AI.

There was one door into the cylinder from our space, but what looked like dozens of exits. All to different sets of stars.

Humans had been venturing into the stars for well over a century by then. Our find led to many more trips. Trying to trace the object’s origin had led us to places like Gilese, and I’d found a marker there that had led Suzuki and I to Eden.

“Eden has been watching it. Waiting for something to happen.”

Something just happened, I whispered to myself.

The little craft had room for four in the crew cabin; we took the two front seats. Fired up the little landing-thrust engines. But we had to wait.

The shuttles with their sleeping cargoes were lined up on long arms stemming from the main craft’s backbone. We could see them through the glass that enclosed most of the cockpit. They were peeling off one by one. We needed several on the arm where our craft sat to move before we could.

Eden was beginning to fill the windows. We were close, and without propulsion, our big ship was going in.

“Com crew, are you boarding a lander?”

The woman who’d seemed to be his deputy spoke. “Most of us. We’re using some of the control rockets to try to aim this ship first. Away from populated areas.”

“I want you moving. Quickly.”

“You first.”

It was our turn. I pulled up on two handles he’d shown me, the manual release. Nothing. I tried again and we were adrift. A crash somewhere. We’d hit a docking arm or another craft.

“Firing,” he said, and the rockets engaged. He struggled with the manual control rod – the craft was a bit awkward, all heavy payload – but then we were past the arms and headed down in a flock of the little ships.

I tried to work the plotter. The computers kept faulting out due to traffic. There were a lot of shuttles heading the same way and blocking possible paths. They weren’t supposed to all leave at once.

“Might have to go manual,” I told him.

“Then guide me.”

I changed the nav to a real-time course. The advisory text was clear. Manual operation not advised. “Take the angle down 5 degrees. Otherwise we might bounce off.”

It worked. The readout showed we were headed in fast, but to one of the deep deserts on the wrong continent. “We should loop. Can you do a turn?”

The rockets fired, and he pulled us into a smooth bank. We could see the big ship now, above us, starting to glow red. It wasn’t made for entry.

“I’ll get under it, then turn back. Don’t want it on top of us.”

True, though there might not be much left. It was starting to break into pieces.

We dropped, too fast. “Where do we land?” I asked.

He was on a headset and didn’t like what he was hearing. “The facilities are filling. If we can maneuver, they say we should just pick a soft spot. I mean, this size of fleet should be landing over weeks.”

Damn. And we were headed into brush, one of the forested areas. “Cut your angle. We can land just into the deserts.”

I dropped landing gear. Hoped they worked.

Somewhere above a fireball cut across the sky. The main craft, falling in. “Two older ones are coming down, too. But unmanned, and into unpopulated areas.”

There was that.

We hit hard. The sand was firm at first, and we rolled and slowed. But then the wheels sank, struts broke and we were in a belly skid. The cabin’s glass cracked. I felt myself pound against straps, my head crashing into the screen I was working from.

Then nothing. And then my mind was elsewhere.

I was at the control of a spacecraft, a swept-wing light plane. I was approaching the object. I’m not sure if it was the object off Eden or the one we’d found around the black star. They were identical.

I saw images, really. Hovering above the surface with its impossible, 720-degree spin. Lowering through the translucent black opening into the vast open cavity. Landing on a pad extended from one end.

Outside the cockpit, a figure. A human wrapped in a jet-suit, a large helm with wide glass over a thick white suit and the propulsive pack.

I could make him out now. Turk Ochar, the flight engineer with me on that trip to the black hole. I’d lost two on that trip, Turk and a mission specialist, Katrina.

Turk had been fascinated by the dozens of doors circling the interior walls of the object. We’d come through one; from inside, it was only one of many. Through each you could see different stars and sometimes more shapes that didn’t look natural.

He’d flown through one, and not returned before we had to return to our mother ship.

If we’d missed that, we’d never have made it back to Earth. He knew that. He knew the risk.

But here he was so many years later, so many light-years away. Looking pained, skin saggy, face thin, his eyes wide and staring. Mouthing words I could make out, or imagined I could.

“Why did you leave me?”

And then hands were grabbing me, pulling me out of the lander and the nightmare. More med techs. More beeping and screeching machines. “You’re Max Parsons?” someone asked, and I realized I could answer. I was alive.

“Good,” the voice said. “The Administrator wants to meet you. She says you’re old friends.”

When we’d discovered Eden, we’d found unique trees that spread in volunteer fashion, and that grew upward into boxlike structures. With a little trimming they became the frames for square rooms, primitive dwellings.

In the capital Aderra, they’d long before stopped living in trees. But the main buildings mirrored this native growth, interconnected squares spread out wide in three- and four-story structures.

The offices they took me to were nicely apportioned, but on the same scale as the other rooms and trees and not at all grand. You could tell the Administrator’s office mainly by the security.

Devin, the captain, was coming out as I arrived. We shared one of those half-grip man hugs. We’d survived falling out of space together. It bonds you.

“How bad was it?” I asked. I was an outsider; the reports didn’t come to me.

“It could have been worse,” he said. “We won’t know until all the hibernation pods are opened. But we may have lost less than 20%.”

Tragic. But not bad for an uncontrolled reentry. “And what caused it?”

“We don’t know. We theorize it was something to do with the object you saw in orbit. It wasn’t just our ship. Everything powered by a Mystery Engine went dead. We lost several other ships. Most of our landers use jets, and some bigger ones do as well, so they were able to land. But we’ll never travel space again without the Mystery Engines.”

I was summoned. They sent the captain back in with me. Two guards stayed near the door. She was looking out a window, or maybe at the paper she was holding. I saw only long hair, almost down to the edge of her jacket just below her waist, clumped into gray dreadlocks. It had once been short cropped and auburn.

The room was dim, but it was daylight so some sun filtered it. It was winter on Eden, the skies cloudy.

She spoke firmly and it sounded familiar. “Max Parsons. It’s been forever, old friend.”

I knew the voice but couldn’t place it. “I don’t… Suzuki?”

Suz was the woman I’d discovered Eden with. I has left her there. The only woman ever on Eden I could possibly have known. But no, that couldn’t be.

She turned, smiled. Laughed. “No, I’m sorry. She was gone before I got here and before any colonists arrived. If it’s any consolation, she sounds content in all her notebooks. She documented much about this world. Probably read every book humans had ever written, too. She died peacefully.”

And now I recognized her. “Katrina Guest. My god. That’s impossible.”

I told the captain because I needed to say it. “Katrina was with me on the last Space Shot I commanded. We visited an anomaly, an object that seemed to have been signaling Earth for generations. An object just like the one in orbit here. Circling a neutron star. A space station of alien construction, but abandoned. Run by an AI.

 “We learned it had been heading for Earth but was caught in the star’s pull. The AI couldn’t tell us who built it or where it came from. And we had only a few hours there before we had to head home, or we wouldn’t get back at all.

“Katrina volunteered to stay, in case the builders came back. I found it very brave.”

She laughed again. “Oh Max, I have so much to tell you I couldn’t then. First off, it wasn’t so brave at all.

“I had some time, when you were looking around the object, alone with the AI. It insisted I had been there before. It knew things it had to know me to know about me.

“It knew it would find a way to send me home. To send me to Earth using something close to what we call quantum entanglement, which connects many of these objects. At the time, that entanglement required an object on both ends, but the AI was finding a way around that.

“It knew that was possible because an older me had visited a dozen years before.

“You see, I’d return to Earth, but decades before we’d left. When you bypass Einstein, strange things happen. You create loops in time. There was a loop in time I had to complete.

“So many months after we visited and I stayed, I returned to Earth. Almost a century before I was born.

“My arrival remains top secret to this day. What I told them inspired the program behind the Space Shots, those missions that sent humans farther and farther out into the galaxy. Eventually our mission thar reached the object.

“I’d go back on a secret Space Shot, one of the earliest, done off the books. I’d meet the AI. The rockets were slower then. This older me reached it just a dozen years before the younger me on our Space Shot.”

Yes, my head was spinning. I’d skipped decades in suspended animation. She had added years by going back in time.

“I didn’t dare stay long enough to meet my younger self. That seemed like a bad idea. So after a time the AI put me back on that slow rocket. Insisted it knew a good place for me. That’s how I got to Eden. Long after our mission, long after your Suzuki had died, just a couple of years after the first colonists arrived here. That’s why I’m older than you now. Probably why they made me Administrator.

“But as I said, most of my story is still secret. Officially, I’m just an early Space Shot-naut who ended up stranded here. I never flew with you, Max. I never visited the object. I trust you and the captain will keep the secret.”

The captain was struggling with these ideas as much as I was. “You traveled time? You changed time? Was that a good idea?”

She turned to look out the window. “I was caught in a loop. When I arrived at the object with Max, I’d already changed time. I had to play it out, see the change through, or risk changing it a different way — into God knows what. I did nothing wrong. Or what I did wrong, I’d already done.

“Anyway, we’ve built something good here. I think that makes it all worth keeping.

“I should show you both around. We’ll talk more over dinner. Captain, you should know that Max and I had a little flirtation back when I was young scientist and he was a mission leader. Now, of course, I’m much too old for him, though something may be left.”

She spent an hour or so showing us around, mostly the upper floors of the main building. Eventually we found our way to a broad patio, clean square lines. The nature here had created squares and rectangles, and the buildings were made to fit in. The floors were a series of rectangles just offset enough to make it interesting. The patio was a rectangle with waist-high borders on its perimeter, hanging halfway off the roof of the top floor.

The table was square, and dinner was a harvest of fruits and vegetables, some familiar from Earth, others definitely evolved off-world. Both Devin and I ate heartily. You don’t get that sort of freshness on a spacecraft.

“Ah, here we are,” she said, as one of her aides brought a long telescoping viewer to her. Long and thin, like an old sea captain might use, but much more powerful.

She peered through it into the night sky. Picked out a barely visible object just left of the planet’s second Moon. Handed the glass to me; she had to describe the location to help me spot it. It was blacker than the night sky, seeming to absorb light.

Devin was eager for a look. I handed it over.

“Near as we can tell, exactly like the other object. The one off the neutron star. The exact same dimensions,” Kat said. “We were scanning it carefully. Hoped to plan a fly-by. Before the Mystery Engines went dead.”

“It’s connected,” Devin said. “It was to be.”

“Maybe,” she said.

“Don’t you know? You’re the time traveler,” Devin pressed.

“That’s over now. The loop is complete. This is all new to me.”

Devin was just a bystander to this conversation. “Max, I’ve looked up out old crew. Daniel Weathers, a 21st century man, one of the earliest Shot-nauts. He went home but worked as a pilot; had a heart attack while flying a lunar shuttle.

“Michael Drake, the astrobiologist, spent much of his life trying to regrow life out of the soil of Mars. Thought there was a completely alien life form there, invisible, unrecognizable. He was found almost eaten by some microscopic biome in his lab, so I guess he was right.

“There were two others. Gentile Trimark, the astrophysicist. She worked on a variety of mining centers, I’m not sure exactly what she was doing. But she left the Space Shot program so she must be dead by now.

“And Turk Ochar, the engineer. Lost on our mission.”

Turk. I’d seen him in that dream, but I didn’t say anything. “The two of us are the only ones conceivably still alive,” I told her. “And I join you here and that object…”

“Appears. That one or another just like it. I don’t know about you, but I have to know why.”

But Eden was grounded, the Mystery Engines dead. There was no way we’d ever know.

The room was square, the fixtures square, the windows square. She’d wanted to keep talking but I needed to get to the square bed. Out like a light; recovery from a century and a half of drugs, and a crash landing, takes it out of you.

I was there again. Limbs heavy, body still feeling asleep. Outside the light spaceplane with its silvery skin.

On a platform in the center of the cylinder, extending halfway into its open interior.

I saw him there, standing shock still, the jet-suit. Tried to speak, maybe I did. “Max, I didn’t mean to leave you. We just had to leave.”

Walked up to it, but it was just the suit, the front of it open, the zips and straps undone.

A voice behind me. “It’s forever Max. You left me forever.”

A hand on my shoulder and I turned. His white jumpsuit, what one wore inside the jet outfit, was torn and dirty. Smudges I could place, the red dirt of Mars, the black richness of Gilese, the fertile brown of Eden. And more. As if he’d scraped dirt from all the places I’d been.

“You had places. I had the empty. All these years in the vacuum.”

His eyes were red behind their brown, the corner of one dripping yellow. Deep wrinkles and creases. Hair limp with sweat.

“You have to find me.”

I woke in bed, covered in sweat, the coverings as wet as my back.

It was a few days before I saw Kat again. I guess I still looked worse for wear.

“You haven’t been sleeping,” she said when dinner was under way and talk about the things to see on this new world had run out.

I didn’t know if she was guessing or they’d been watching. “I know how it is,” she said. “I’m been pretty on edge.”

“The object?”

She nodded. Drank the rest of the wine and ordered more. What grew on Eden weren’t exactly grapes, but close enough. Alcohol is one of great human commonalities. Wherever on Earth something grew you could ferment, the people who lived there had figured out how. Usually before running water or sanitation. Getting drunk was the first technology.

“Yes. I’ve been thinking about our comrades ever since it arrived. Particularly Turk.”

I’m sure my face changed. I took a drink and tried to hide it. Why, I don’t know. I guess because I was new to Eden. I didn’t want my new compatriots to think I was barely hanging on to my sanity.

“I’ve had dreams about him, Max. Like he’s there. Like he’s up there.”

And yes, then I told her. I’d had nightmares about him. Asking why I left him. Asking me to come.

“I need to go up there.” Ah Kat. Determined as ever. “I had a relationship with the AI, way out there at the neutron star. If I’m right, if these things somehow connect across space and time, the same one might be here.”

And Turk? He had to be dead. No way we could save him.

Besides, space was out of scope.

“But how?” I asked. “All the tech went dead when our ship went dead, right? Every space vehicle based on the Mystery Engine. You can’t get there.”

Kat, of course, had a plan. “We still have some landers with fuel engines. Not really used for takeoff, but it’s possible. We’re arranging to combine the fuel we have. We should have enough for one mission.”

“Both of us, right?” I asked Kat. “We have to go back together.”

“We are bound together with it, Max,” she said. “Creatures of the empty.”

We weren’t, of course, actually going to a place we’d been before. But we were visiting its twin. And maybe a ghost.

Maybe it was a little frightening for both of us. We comforted each other that night. And avoided the bad dreams.

The craft was the same sort of compact spaceplane Suzuki and I had flown in when we first reached Eden – 18 decades before. I was the pilot, Kat having given up the seat given my greater experience.

First it was a standard jet engine, air flowing smoothly above and below the sleek wing’s shape and carrying us off the runaway and ever higher.

Kat gasped a little when we reached the spot where you could see the curve of the planet. “I haven’t been off Eden in years,” she said by way of explanation. But it wasn’t just that.

There was a surge and a powerful cough from the craft. Our angle tipped up and the engines kicked into ram mode, drawing ever more of the thin atmosphere into the jet engines.

Then the atmosphere grew too thin for the craft to breath at all, and the jets injected oxygen from internal tanks and became actual rockets. You used to able to hear them cough a little at this transition, too, but this craft was smooth.

The rockets fired long enough to get us clear to dead space, with no atmosphere and minimal gravitational pull. Timing that firing was critical, as it put us on the path to the object. “We are on course,” I told her.

“Good job,” she congratulated me, then looked at me and let out a small laugh.

I was assessing the fuel. “If we’re conservative with fuel, we might be able to make it back. I don’t know about landing.”

“If this ends us, we go out together,” she said heavily. “Like it or not.””

Damn. It was going to come up. It was for the best. “You OK? Something bothering you.”

No, she said, but the dishonesty was clear in her voice. I just stared at her, urging.

“”It’s OK, really. I mean, I know in real years I’m older than you now. Too old. The centuries have been kinder to you. It’s OK.”

“Kat, I…”

“No need to say anything. Three weeks says it all.”

Had it been that long? Seemed like the night before, or a year. Time doesn’t mean much to me anymore. “It wasn’t that,” I told her. “To me you’re still the young officer you were when we headed to the black star.

“But I was fresh out of hypersleep and crash landing out of orbit. And remember, to me it’s 180 years ago. I’m just a few weeks from leaving Suzuki on Eden. I’m still trying to deal. Hard to jump into a new life.”

She nodded and her eyes gave me a sparkle. Maybe that was enough to say for now. When we got back to Eden, maybe we’d try.

If we got back.

I used the rockets to slow our path when the object loomed. It dwarfed us. And the memories overwhelmed.

The object was at least a two dozen times as long as our craft, a perfect cylinder of black half as thick as it was long. There was one area of a slightly less dense black; perhaps reflecting light rather than absorbing it.

Spinning, but not just around. It spun 720 degrees each time it made a complete rotation. Like a tiny quirk of nature known as a spin particle. We hadn’t been able to gather samples of this outer material, but we suspected it was all one particle, one vast subatomic particle. Built from some unknown quantum element.

But we knew how the door worked, or at least how its twin had worked. I maneuvered our craft until it was parallel to that lighter spot whenever the spot rotated to our side. I lowered us down. And the spin paused, or at least the door became fixed.

And then we were through, as if we’d fallen into ink and come out the other side unstained.

Into a vast chamber, its skin lined with similar doors, dozens of them, all spinning with the object’s rotation.

You could see through them from this side, and each showed a pattern of stars, each one different. Some also showed planets, some orange and red, others green or blue, some just gray and dead.

Some of those planets were orbited by objects we didn’t have time to study. We had a destination.

One end of the cylinder was filled by a maze of construction that looked like shelves from this angle. From it, extending into the chamber, was a long flat spear of cold gray metal. Unlike the rest of the station, the spear and this structure were not spinning.

I maneuvered our craft until we were parallel to this spear, which was a landing platform. I set us down on it. Next to what, for all outer appearances, looked like a duplicate of our lander. But it was substantially older; it was the lander Suzuki and I had taken to Eden, so long ago.

There were a few blocks of gray on this platform as well, some with glowing or blinking lights.

And clearly, standing on the platform, was a human shape. Roughly the size of a man in a jet-equipped spacesuit.

And it was waving.

We suited up in warm garb. As before, the atmosphere and pressure inside the object read as perfect for us. Almost too perfect.

Down the retractable ladder, onto the platform. The waving figure, no question who it was. Turk, still in his blocky, metallic flying suit, though the jet unit was detached and standing beside him.

His voice was metallic, amplified from inside. “My God. Max. Kat. It can’t be. And you’re … old.”

Indeed, he still looked about the same age as when we’d left him, though thinner. And his expression was weak, almost diffuse. As if he might fade out.

“Max, I…” No obvious words, so I went for the momentary. “The atmo is good. Why are you in the suit?”

He shifted where he stood. Maybe he shrugged, couldn’t really tell. “I’m not sure there’s enough of me left to be outside it. I might dissolve without it holding me together. It’s been forever, I think.”

And that got to my heart. “I’m sorry Max. We had to leave if we were going to get home.”

He smiled some sort of smile, behind the plastic faceplate of his suit. “I know. I don’t blame you. My choice.”

Kat was close now, too. “But what happened? We saw you head off into space.”

“I’ll tell you,” he said. “But, when are we? How long?” Not where are we. When.

She and I looked at each other. What was it, four centuries?  I guess we both wanted to know what he thought before we said. He guessed that was why we waited. “OK, me first.

“You remember. We entered the object from the only door we could find. It wasn’t obvious. I went first, in the jet suit.

“Inside was this vast space, just like this one. At the end closest to us, we saw the cylinder walls were lined with openings, windows, each looking out on a different set of stars and planets. And even smaller objects, which I’d decide were spacecraft.

“We’d come through one of those openings. Now there were dozens.

“You set the craft down on this platform and soon you and the others were exploring. Met an AI, that I knew. The atmosphere was earthlike, or Eden-like. Adapted to us.

“I only listened on the coms. I flew, looking out those windows. I focused on one in particular. Not just stars but a planet in the distance. And craft, spacecraft, objects that had to be made by some other intelligent life.

“The cylinder was first contact, of course. But there was more beyond. And we were trained, bred, to explore.

“So I went through.”

I remembered. He’d gone beyond the window and hadn’t made it back. Kat had opted to stay at the object. I took no small shit on Earth for losing two crew members.

“I wasn’t out the door very long when I realized it was a longer way to those craft than I’d thought. And my fuel was limited. I didn’t know if I could even turn around and get back, and I knew you had a hard departure. Our lander had to rendezvous with the mothership or be lost itself.

“I went on. Realized as I got close to the first of the three ships — long, fin-shaped things with slick skins — I might be in trouble. They were too smooth. Nothing to grab. I checked my speed and held on to what I could, an edge that led to a depression cutting across its skin.

 “I pawed my way across the metal – I guess it was metal, I couldn’t feel through my suit. I was breathing heavily and there were colors flashing across my eyes. Panic in zero G. I wasn’t getting back.

“But then, ahead, there was an opening. Something slid open, welcoming me, I guess. And what choice was there? I went in.

“A long corridor, totally smooth, silver-white in color like the craft. A turn, and then another.

“There was an opening now, and maybe there had been others, just perfectly fit with doors so tightly built as to seem invisible.

“The room was maybe 8 by 8, the walls empty, just a bench across one side. At least it was soft. Because the door closed behind me, and there was no way out.

“Now if you can imagine being in a totally empty room in a totally alien place, with no way out and no real hope of getting back to where you belonged, looking out a spacesuit visor knowing you have a limited supply of air, you can imagine how I felt. My life was over and I had to live it anyway.

“And then it got weird.

“You know inside the helmet of a suit, just at chin level, there’s a row of lights. Indicators. Exterior atmosphere, temp, etc. They were all red.

“First the one for grav clicked green. It was a little light compared to Earth, but my feet settled onto the floor. Then the oxygen went green; breathable. And then the temp reading went to 21 celsius. Air pressure within Earth normal, too.

“When I think about it, rising temps would have released pressure and air from inside the suit. Those could have been read, copied. As it had been replicated inside the object. However it worked, the room adapted to me.

“And someone or something had to oversee this adaptation.

“I took a few minutes pondering it, but there really wasn’t a choice. I undid the harness that connected me to the jet pack. Let the rig slip off my body; the unit stands on the floor, upright. Then the helmet, and then the thick, insulated plastic suit. It slumped as I stepped out in just my jumpsuit.

“The room was dead quiet. Nothing. I looked at the corners, felt the walls. Nothing. Finally sat down on what would long be my bed.

“I was thirsty. And hungry. Stepped up, sipped from the hydro tube in the big suit. I had a bar in a pocket of the jumper, one of those nutritionals we’d eat for long shifts. Broke off a piece and ate half of it ravenously. Thought about saving the rest. Might have one more, you know how many pockets they put in these suits. But that wouldn’t keep me long.

“Just then, a drawer of sorts slid out from the wall, as if beckoning. It was sleek and slick, like the walls.  No handle, no obvious slides.

“Another bite. The drawer slid in, then out again. OK. I broke off a piece and dropped it in the drawer, which then closed. Ah well. A fourth of a bar wouldn’t mean much anyway.

“I finished. Looked around again. Yelled. Is someone there? Can you talk? Anything.

“Nothing. I finally laid down and almost slept. Before long, the drawer slid open again. There were, I don’t know, 20 or more very similar bars sans the packaging. Grabbed one, took a bite. If it didn’t kill me. I guessed I would not starve.

“Now, I knew I had a lot of time on my hands. And finding ways to spend the time would be a challenge. But someone was watching. I might as well put on a show.

“Each time I ate, I’d say things like ‘food’ and spell ‘F-O-O-D.’ Which would have gotten boring but I knew a lot of words for food and imagined those bars were all the flavors in my world.

“I should also mention that the first time I needed to relieve myself, another drawer – lower – popped out. Which suggested some similarities with the life forms that were watching.

“The other thing I had with me, in my jumpsuit, was my com. Just palm sized, but it had a screen. I started using it, scribbling as I spoke the names of food.

“It had some photos in it, too. So I’d call up my pet or my mom, wave the photo display around, say the name, scrawl it. I didn’t know if any of that would have any impact, but what the hell.

“I’d go for a while, get bored, sit, even nap. There wasn’t much more reaction than what I’d already seen. The occasional drawer of bars. The relief drawer, as I call, which was spotlessly clean each time.

“After a while I noticed the lights would sometimes be bright, sometimes dim, then light again. Eventually I noticed they’d go dim when I napped, which meant I napped longer. Eventually we were sort of synched. I guess someone figured that rest was a good thing for me. Non-verbal communication.

“After a dozen days or so – my com kept time, which was the only way I knew how much was passing – its battery went dead. I managed to feed it from the batteries in my flight suit a couple of times, then they were dead as well. So I tossed the device into the drawer the next time the food came out and let them take it away.

“Sometime later – enough to go through a couple of drawers of bars – the drawer opened, and there was a version of my com. But larger, and without the timekeeping and some other functions. My photos were there, and I could write messages on the screen.

“There were other images as well, and they weren’t mine. The ships we were in; I saw them and yelled out “spacecraft.” Features, I guess of the world below. I called them oceans and flora and animals. Though they were not quite like the animals or plants of home.

“I went on like that for a while. The other thing I would do would be a series of exercises in the little room, as well as running laps in that tiny square.

“Then, once as I was running, the door opened. To a long, featureless hallway. I ran to the far end and back and, since nothing changed of note, repeated the lap a dozen more times. That became a bit of a regular thing. And after a while, the hallway led on and on, through many turns, then back to my room. They’d set up a course for me.

“Along that path, I passed one wall that seemed translucent. I could clearly see blinking and flashing through it. And the movement of shapes, tall and wide at the base, trimmer and head-like on top. I tried at different times pressing and pushing, but nothing moved. That’s as close as I came to them. My guess is that I appeared hideous to them, and they knew they would appear the same to me.

“A long time passed. Then one time, the pad started sending messages to me. It was a combination of images and words, the sentences fractured and childlike, the images sometimes of common things and other times incomprehensible.

“But the cylinder, the object, featured heavily. Over time they told me the story. An object had appeared above their world not long after they began exploring beyond their moon. The initial visit had them met by an AI, taking one of their forms. They were shown a path through one of the windows inside it. A window to another world, the world I was now orbiting in their ship.

“The AI told them that a civilization settled on more than one world in its system doubles its chances of survival. Settling on worlds in different systems increases the odds a hundredfold. And so eventually, after a half-dozen limited explorations, this race sent thousands to that new world on three ships.

“And then the settlers found they could not get back, or even back into orbit. Their engines quit, just as yours have on Eden. The few on those ships were trapped in orbit.

“I don’t know how long all these discussions took. I developed my own theory as well, that the object we’d visited, bound for earth, had a similar purpose. It would have drawn humans to a new home. Eventually cut some of us off there. I came to think of them as zoos. Who knew how many colonies there were, drawn by similar objects? Perhaps hundreds of races, sampled for observation on worlds found or made for them.

“Like your Eden. Imagine a world where a small area is perfectly fitting for human life, dependent on the exact rotations of a binary star system and then the exact development of an environmental zone. The odds are exponentially against such a place occurring naturally, much less humans finding it. I think it was created. You know you were guided there. ”

It was a chilling story, since at that moment we weren’t sure could get back to Eden. And never to Earth. We were indeed prisoners in a zoo.

“How did you end up here, now?” I asked him.

“Well, I was lonely. Physically cared for, but that wasn’t enough. My friends, such as they were, they knew that.

“They had a theory. When they’d tried to return to the object, some field had blocked their way. But I’d come through in my suit. Maybe the field didn’t affect it. Maybe I could get back.

“It was a gamble. But they managed to power up my suit. Fuel the jetpack. I put it on and signaled my intent. Doors and hallways opened.

“And then the hatch opened and with a gust of atmosphere, they basically shot me at the object.

“I didn’t know if I’d make it. Kept waiting, as I got close and closer, for whatever might repel me. Some sort of energy field, or a small gun, or something.

“But no. I used my jets when I got close. Reached the dark of the door. And then inside. Made it to this area, and then the control center.

“And then an AI was there, in human form, but diffuse, like a figure of static on an old TV screen.”

Kat started to say something, but Turk guessed. “No, not your AI. This space is shared, across space and – since your episode, to some extent – across time. But each AI is different.

“It told me I couldn’t go back to my friends. And there was no object at the Earth. The one meant for Earth was lost, caught by the neutron start we visits. There was nowhere for me to go.

“But the AI said that one day I would be able to see humans again. It could be arranged. But it would take well beyond a human lifetime.

“So I had to survive. Which would take energy from the AI. I’d need to feed from it. I don’t remember the process, really. Don’t even know if this is the same object I first flew to, or they moved me around. You see, I am basically an AI now. One of them.

“The other thing I could do with all that time was study. The history of the objects, the histories of so many races. Including the one that created these objects.

“For so long. How long has it been, my friends? I’ve lost track.”

Kat and I looked at each other. Didn’t really want to say. But it was inevitable.

“It’s three centuries, Turk. More, really. 337 years.”

He seemed to smile. I continued. “But it’s over now. There are humans on Eden. You can go with us.”

“No,” he said, with only a little disappointment. “I’m as I said, basically AI now. Barely here. I am the AI that runs this object. I can’t go, not after so long. If I left this suit, I don’t believe I’d even keep a human form.

“But we do have a future, Max. You and I.”

Finally, Kat spoke, though we didn’t want to break into his moment. “What is the future, Turk? Is Eden to be a prison, like the planet you visited?”

“No. Not like that at all.

“Why not?”

“Because you taught us, Katrina. You taught the intelligence, the AIs. That we could bridge time as well as space. That we could shape future and sometimes the past. That we could reach places where there were no objects. We and humans, perhaps by accident, have a future. We are going to be learn together.

“Max, you’ll take with you to Eden plans for new engines. I will be here, as a guide, when humans can come back. They will be able to go almost anywhere.”

“To Earth?” I asked.

“No. Not now. There is no object there – that’s what you call them – and no window to Earth. When we send to Earth without that, as we did with Kat, we manipulate time as well as space. We dare not do that. We might change the history that brough humans here.

“But beyond that, go anywhere you care to go. Humans will be the first true star-going race. The first since the founders who built the objects.”

My thought was, why was all this up to me? And why did he mention only me in this plan?

Kat wanted to learn more. “What were they, Turk? The founders?”

This he had to show, not just tell. He pointed at one of the windows, and a planet beyond of lush green.

He seemed to pull at it, and an image appeared near us, in three dimensions, of the world.

Appearing before us was a planet of night, usually in shadow cast by the one other planet closer to its sun. But warm enough, and with fertile land and clean waters. And life.

“You see this world long ago. Perhaps 10,000 years. Cooled and well past primordial.”

The image zoomed in on creatures of sort I’d never seen before, but then on a young humanoid race, somewhat hairy but wearing their kind’s earliest clothes. They built stone buildings and carried knives on belts.

“There are bipeds here, and they’ve reached the point of simple technologies. Very intelligent and quick to mimic things. With guidance, they will progress to spaceflight in only 1,000 years, and in 1,700, colonize that second planet in this solar system. In 2,000 they will master quantum physics. In 2,500 they will build objects like this object.”

“That’s much faster than on earth,” Kat said, sounding impressed.

 “That’s because of a unique God that will give them these ideas. Seed their future. A visitor from a time when those things have already happened.

“So what went wrong?” I asked him. “Where are they?”

“Well, as I said, occupying two planets in a system can double a race’s chances of surviving disasters, natural ones or ones they create. Occupying two systems can raise the chances exponentially. But there are no guarantees. There was an anger dating back to the period you see, between races and what you would think of as nations.

“This found its way through their home world, to the second planet and even across the stars. Separations deepened old wounds and rivalries. In time, they killed themselves off.

“But the AIs survived. Continued to build objects, a process by then automated. The AIs followed a mission to expand, altered by the lesson they had learned from the founders. They adopted race after race and guided them to settle new worlds. Occupying multiple worlds, but separated in totality forever. That gave each race its best chance of indefinite survival. A complete reboot is the only way to escape the errors of any race’s past.”

I  was fascinated. But one thing made no sense. “A God? I’ve seen no God in my travels.”

“Have you not?”

A memory snapped into my mind. On Gilese. We’d found an ancient stone icon, bearing a star map that had led us to Eden.

And a simple, carved line drawing. A woman, a coltish face with wrinkles. And long tangled dreads. Now I knew why. “The visitor you mean is… ”

“Yes,” Turk said. And he was looking at Kat. “She must start the process. Guide them, tell them where to go and what to build. And not how it ends. That must not change. Because that is their future. And it leads to this present.”

I guess we were both staring at Kat then. “No,” she said. “I won’t change time. Not again. Not another time loop.”

“You must,” he said. “You are a being outside of time, and this action is already history. You change time by not going back. If you refuse, we aren’t here. Everything is reshuffled. These objects, the greatest invention of any race ever, will no longer exist.

“Think of what will be lost,” he continued. “The legacy of a race that tackled the vast distances of space and broke the lightspeed limit. Even now, humans are just at that threshold. In these objects, the vast empty is connected, all as one, each door to a different possibility that is otherwise unreachable.

“And now it all belongs to humans. Think of the knowledge that awaits. It all goes away unless you do this. Would you end all that?”

She spoke immediately. She knew. She’d been born to explore, genetically designed for discoveries like this. “If I refuse it all disappears. The future of humankind I always dreamed of.”

And that was that. That’s why there was a second ship on the pad here within the object. She would go to that origin world.

I would at least go to a place where humans lived.

“If it helps,” Turk said, “the past tells us you both did as we ask. She arrived alone. Which means you, Max, go back to Eden. You need not choose. You have chosen.”

I didn’t want to say goodbye. But you get used to it.

I suppose we could have blown it all up. Sometimes I think that might have been the best choice. But we’d have been hitting the reset button for what, humans? Earth? The whole galaxy?

That’s the thing about time travel and quantum physics. Nothing is new, fate has been drawn, it’s all a tangle of moments. In some philosophies, all of time is one great explosion and the clock is only how we perceive it.

There’s always a buzz now on Eden. Preparing new craft, new engines, getting ready for our new future. One where time and space are just tools and humans are the mechanics.

The future of humankind looks bright, or at least new.

I miss her. I guess I shouldn’t; it was the right thing, Change time? I’m not worth it.

And while she might have been with me had she stayed, more likely neither of us would have ever met or existed. And that was too much to gamble. I mean, in the end existence is all you’ve got.