SYNNØVE FISKER, Ph.D., mission specialist: It was almost like a ‘near-death’ experience. The weird light, and weird… everything, but it was the place we had just left? Earth, not out there? You could liken how we felt, to that.
It was as though we three had never experienced a “normal” spacetime, before that moment. We were disembarking in the midst of this swarm of technicians and medics, we didn’t know what the telemetry would show, for the longest… I mean, could you stand to wait almost two weeks, for news that could change everything, the whole world? Could anyone? I thought I had done a thorough job of evaluating spacecraft operations before and during those thirty seconds that made all the difference, but I lack objectivity. I’m my own worst critic; my partner, his name is Yianni, keeps reminding me.
AZHAR NUR AL-RAHMAN, M.D., flight surgeon: I had my hands full — trying to keep a close eye on my patients. That just overrode implications of what we had to accomplish, just keeping my shipmates in good working order, so that they could keep their patient, our vessel, doing the same thing. It wasn’t their first flight, of course, though it was the first one they had participated in together.
I had worked with Synne, of course, on runs out to Makemake, a TNO beyond Pluto — TNO stands for Trans-Neptunian Object, and I’m sure, every attentive schoolchild can tell you, at least these days, that’s no longer such a distance to impress them today, but anyhow. It was a lot to do, and we weren’t a dramatic trio or anything. I mean, the holographic depictions of our mission were a bit more dressed up with exciting dialogue and emotions, but we were just three technocrats, doing our jobs. Dinis had racked up a dozen, or more, voyages to outer planets, and he projected such confidence, in what he was doing, that I found myself thinking, It can’t be much of an undertaking, if he seems to be a bit bored with it all. We would come to find out, this was his way of handling his nerves, because he wasn’t bored, in fact!
DINIS MAGALHÃES, command pilot: I can sort of “blame it all” on Ferdinand Magellan. I’m almost his namesake. He may be a distant relative of mine, but even if he is not, he sort of “casts a long shadow” over my employment, at the Nascent Techniform — he died, during his famous voyage, when he was just forty-one. I was thirty-seven, when Nascent hired me; then, I applied for an experimental flight, this one, when I was forty!
So, the fact that I could wind up dying, even younger than he did, was definitely a joke I had to make, during that time. Pilots have such black humor about the job, and what we risk. It’s the way we cope with all the work stresses. That’s when (director of flight operations) Jamie Edwards would tell us about how we were vying for the chance for the chance to participate in a big new testing mission, he laid out the parameters of it and it didn’t seem so bad to “risk it all”. I was pleased, just to make a good living, to support my kids. It’s why I took the job. Historical feats were a bonus!
AL-RAHMAN: Synne likes to tell this joke: “A Brazilian, a Malaysian and a Norwegian walk into a bar. And then, they recall that two of them don’t drink alcohol.” The joke about us, you see, is that we’re space explorers… who not only can’t find where we’re going, but we forget some important details about why we headed there in the first place! I guess, it’s more humorous if you knew us, but we laugh about it. It did not promise good things coming for us in the real mission.
MAGALHÃES: We were going to outrun a beam of light itself, Jamie told us — and who were we to contradict him? This had been the fantasy of zero-gravity pilots since, well, before there were any pilots, I think. First half of the previous century, we made all sorts of breakthroughs, formula this, design that, but we kept coming up with the same problems that make big projects tough: energy, scale, materials, even time. The last one isn’t what you think; it’s not time like, How long will it take to do this? I mean, the way time flows as you approach the speed of light, it seems to slow down for you, the person flying that speed, but it goes at its ordinary speed for someone back on a planet. So the point of this is to make a voyage to Rigil Kentaurus in a reasonable period of time, without it taking almost five years of your life to do it, because why should it take that long?
FISKER: Well, of course, I am an engineer, even though I’m called a “mission specialist”, I am a slide-rule and calculator type of person, a technician. They wanted us to complement and overlap one another, whenever we could, and since Dinis and I aren’t medical doctors, like Azhar… we had to be in the best physical shape of our lives, and we were in good shape already, but come on, none of us is under forty. Azhar’s fifty-two! The world is still recovering from lots of things our economy did to damage it, but that’s really the point of our mission and others like it, to get better at doing these things. So when I got a good look at these new continuum-distortion drivers, the motors of our ship, the excitement started to infect me like it already did Dinis. Azhar, I think, is more skeptical of these things, but he has to weigh our health against what a spacecraft can do, because we’re his priority.
AL-RAHMAN: Tyche Station? It’s a long, long way from Macalla City, where I was born, but it’s also next door to us, in the next room, really, in terms of a solar system. Until our own lifetimes, this was a distance no inhabited craft could ever have traveled, but we launched an unmanned space platform, a vessel designed to occupy an orbital position, and this took, at one-quarter lightspeed, over forty days for the vessel to reach. Nobody was on board, so nobody got bored or claustrophobic in all that time. I might have been a full-time psychiatrist if I had been on that vehicle with a crew! Tyche was named for a planet that doesn’t exist, to our knowledge, but just maybe, a world exists there now, one Nascent launched. Good enough.
MAGALHÃES: I remember it, we were trying to resolve some problem, one of mine, fuel consumption or battery reserves, I think it was, and Synne, rubbing her eyes as a tired person does, saying, Why don’t we just declare success and go home? I will always remember Jamie looked at us, with his almost evil smile, and said, “Fourteen pounds, my sleepy children,” and then we were laughing, because we were going to weigh a lot more than that, a lot more than just one stone, IF we could break this cosmic barrier.
FISKER: Jamie Edwards liked to motivate us with jokes, but he was also good at teasing our brains with big ideas. He would say, If you go fast enough, you may run into yourselves coming while you’re going, which we laughed at. But then, he would ask if us we knew the meaning of Einstein. He was not talking about relativity. He meant the name, Einstein, or as he put it, Ein stein, meaning, “one stone”. Leave it to a mad Welshman to point to that and go further, call it “fourteen pounds”, as in the old English weight system.
MAGALHÃES: So we pushed off, again quoting Jamie, from Titan to begin the mission. We needed to be of such a distance from Earth that the Sun wouldn’t obscure our telemetry with its magnetic field, and also, with its brightness! We sort of crept up to the designated deep-space position to test out the new drivers, which had these sweet Alcubierre designs, made to distort causality just enough for us to skip over time dilation problems, as those don’t cut in until you’re about half the way to “C”, lightspeed itself.
AL-RAHMAN: Dinis threw the switch, as they say, and we just… shattered the sky! The screen went dark; we couldn’t see a thing, which may have meant we had a malfunction — or, it may have meant, we were going too fast for light to catch us. We wouldn’t know the result, until we got back home. Radio signals went at the same speed. We couldn’t just ask Earth, “How did we do?”, and get that response immediately. So if we were in a movie, it would have been time for an intermission, a break in the story, to cut out dull scenes showing where we turned around and headed home, at well below “C”.
FISKER: I couldn’t sleep or eat or focus on anything, other than the throbbing in my temples, it was all just too much. We knew that we had to do something really huge, but it took all of our focus, and willpower, to read our scopes and press all the correct buttons, so we wouldn’t blow ourselves up along the way. There was this sort of painful silence, that sort of landed on us, the weight of it. Then, it was the wait — not weight, like ‘how heavy something is’, but just us, biding our time, waiting around for something to come back, that was… just crushing.
MAGALHÃES: We reached about one-fifth of lightspeed, which works out to 2,235,384 miles, which is roughly 1,385,938 kilometers, for every minute we were in flight! We wanted to make that look like we were taking a nap. Once we reached launch position, waited a long time to hear from Launch Central, to cut in the drivers. I took a deep breath; Azhar may have prayed, I don’t recall for sure, and Synne was focused on her console — I think she wanted it to be over already, which I respected, even though, as a pilot, you want a flight to last, because that’s where I shine, the flying part. So after thirty seconds of black screen, I cut out the main C.D.D.’s, and we saw stars. A promising sign.
AL-RAHMAN: Did I say the dull part? I wasn’t talking about the suspense we had to endure, once we got back. I believe Synne has told you about how our feeling was sort of dream-like, or corrupted, once we hit those deck plates? She was referring as much to the atmosphere of people pressing in on us, at the debriefings we had to endure, the medical poking — even I got tired of so many medics and nurses, examining me, so I appreciate how my shipmates felt when I did it to them — but Tyche Station was watching our flight, and it was so far out, two thousand astronomical units, which is a hundred eighty-six billion miles, that the report didn’t reach Central for eleven-point-eleven days. Those were some long, punishing days for us. We weren’t even the only test ship launched to try to do this, so even if we had come close to breaking the barrier, other ships with their three-person crews were making the best efforts.
FISKER: I guess it’s egocentric to want to be the one to break the barrier, get your name in the history books, but someone has to do it. We got through a medical screening period, physical and mental, and we awaited the result. I think I was stirring some honey into a cup of tea when the board honked as the signal came in from Tyche: we had traveled 6,035,536.8 miles in thirty seconds. Do the math, you find it works out to our hitting point-zero-eight beyond “C”. Double-, then triple-checked. Our computer models matched our flight data. No error. We called a conference of scientists and displayed our data. The lights came up in the room, before Jamie could call for them; might have been pre-programmed. I remember, I waved my hand and said something like, “You’re welcome,” and everyone just laughed, because I’m faster than light, you know? All three of us are. We’re just the first.
— Excerpts from “Luminal: The Translight Journey”: interviews by Chase Hoyle, Gareth Hamamoto, Marvyn Abajian and Alene McNary.
© Eric Wolf 2022.
[Explore the Concordance of Worlds: https://vocal.media/fiction/yellow-belly.]