“Hello my celestial friends,” the energetic young man being represented by a low frame-rate avatar greeted, “and welcome to another episode of Cosmological Quandaries! Today, we’re going to answer the most difficult question in the galaxy... just how old is Marco Chung?”
At that, the video changed over to what was apparently the regular introduction sequence, although the volume level was much louder than the preceding cold opening. Following this, the host—who went by the nom de plume of “FasterThanMach69”, or just “Mach” for short—reviewed some biographical details about Marco Chung, including his career as an elite pilot and captain of several Quantum Ships. With the audience now fully informed of just who Marco Chung was and why he was worthy of being a topic for this piece, Mach continued.
“Now, we need a brief overview of how time dilation works. Science tells us that time is all ‘relative’; that is, time moves at a different rate depending upon a couple of factors. One of those is mass and the force of gravity created by the density of that mass. If you put a clock somewhere in a deep pit like Death Valley, another one at sea level, and another one in orbit around the planet, all of the clocks will be ticking at different rates. But which ones are going slower and faster? Well, it depends on where the observer is to say which way things are going. If we put ourselves into the viewpoint of a person at sea level, the clock in the valley will be moving slower and the one in orbit will be moving faster.
“That’s what we mean by ‘relative’ as it all depends on where you are looking from. For the person in the valley and the person in space, time is passing normally. The person in space looks down and sees both the sea-level and deep valley clocks are moving slower than their own. It all changes based upon whose perspective you are looking at it from.
“But that is not the only way you can impact the perception of time. The other major factor is speed. The faster you go, the slower time appears to be moving according to someone watching you from a distance.”
The video then turned to some musical jokes related to an ancient Earth ballad that interacted with Mach’s avatar. After spending an exorbitant amount of time on this sight gag, Mach finally felt it was an opportune moment to get back on track and move on to other subjects.
“Thus, you can see by this,” Mach said as he segued back to the topic at hand, “that if someone—say, Marco Chung—were on a ship traveling very fast, then his experience of time passing would be completely different than what we went through on Earth. Lucky guy didn’t even have to deal with the last election, he skipped right over it!
“But before getting too far down the rabbit hole, let’s be clear about a couple of things. First off, those clocks in the valley, at sea level, and in orbit are barely different from each other. We are talking a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a nanosecond. And even though gravity on the extrasolar colonies is not exactly equal to Earth 1G, the differences are not significant enough to make a major impact. Given that, we’re going to focus in on how speed has changed Marco Chung’s life.”
As Mach went through his explanation, a series of stock photos combined with custom graphics and visual manipulations appeared on screen. Most were not real images of Marco, spaceships, or any such thing, but Mach seemed to feel they were representative enough for his purposes. Mach’s own avatar often popped in to provide additional commentary and interact with the illustrations.
Jumping ahead to the relevant details, Mach commenced, “Our story begins when Marco Chung was just eighteen years old. Having never left Earth before, he and everyone on the planet were aging at the same rate. When Marco took the space elevator into orbit and boarded a vessel, though, it was in an era before Quantum Ships even existed. Instead, there were nothing but Torch Ships.
“Okay, we already need to take a little aside. The way the Torch Drive works is that it burns a massive amount of fuel to create thrust, and that thrust simulates gravity by going faster and faster at a rate equal to Earth’s gravity, that being 9.8 meters per second squared. What that does mean, though, is that you have to keep adding speed in order to continue to create that same amount of downward pressure that feels like gravity. That’s why all spaceships are designed to look like tall buildings; because, as you are moving forward from the perspective of the nose, the ‘gravity’ is pushing you towards the floor, or the floor towards you, whatever, it doesn’t matter!
“Eventually, if you go far enough, you’ll reach velocities that can be measured against the speed of light. In other words, you might go 0.25c, or 25% the speed of light! The ship will keep accelerating until it reaches the midpoint of the journey where it must turn off the Torch Drive and literally flip the engine around to the other side. While that is happening, gravity disappears and everyone starts to float, so you and everything else better be strapped in!
“With the Torch Drive on the other side, it relights and uses the same calculations to start slowing itself down. This braking will again feel like 1G of pressure for those inside until they reach their destination. Once there, their velocity will be near zero and they can enter orbit.
“Now, you are probably saying, ‘Mach, that seems like it would take a lot of power!’ And you are right. Luckily for Marco, generations earlier humanity had learned to harness energy by combining a variety of techniques together, as well as figure out a way to vent the heat away from the ship so the people inside did not just become crispy nuggets.”
At this mention, a graphic of a blackened nugget with eyeballs popped up from the bottom of the screen, blinked a couple of times, and then left the way it had come.
“Even with nearly infinite fire,” Mach’s returning voiceover noted, “humanity’s expansion to the stars was thwarted by one thing: our pesky companion time dilation. Let’s look at a typical trip to our nearest neighboring star system Proxima Centauri, which is about 4.3 light-years away. Again, we can’t just suddenly start going near the speed of light and get there in about 4.3 years; we have to slowly ramp up the acceleration, get to the halfway point, and slowly decelerate. This means that for someone watching on Earth, the Torch Ship reaches 95% the speed of light at its peak and takes over 5.9 years to reach the system.
“That, though, is not what happens inside the ship. On board, time dilation has made it so that less than 3.6 years have passed for the passengers. Of course, this only includes getting to Proxima Centauri; you have to double it for the return trip. And you must also add in the time actually spent in the system and on the planets there doing the actual work! Marco Chung made two whole trips to the colony on Proxima Centauri B using this archaic method.
“Then, as now, it was rare for someone to take more than even one of these journeys. The roundtrip to Proxima Centauri—assuming a year layover at the colony—would take 12.8 years back on Earth. Yet, because of time dilation, Marco and the other crew members and passengers only experienced the passing of 8.2 years. Even with the longer lifespans we have now compared to our ancestors, 8.2 years is quite a bit. When Marco returned to Earth for the first time, he was over 26 years old. Any same-aged friends he left behind were then nearly 31 years of age. After being gone for so long and literally being slightly out of sync from everyone and everything else makes most people stop right there. One and done, as the saying goes.
“While uncommon, some people did and still do go out on a second journey. Thus, after a mandatory year back on Earth, no one batted an eye when a still young Marco signed up for a subsequent trip. At the end of that mission, Marco was over 35 years old while, if he had stayed on Earth, he would be approaching 45, a difference of about 9 to 10 years. At that time, people expected that Marco and people like him would then settle back down on Earth.
“In practice, it was and still is commonplace for an HSA crewperson to take a half-journey where they go out to a colony and settle there. Some people find too much has changed for them while they have been away, especially if they partook in two trips like Marco did. This is exceptionally pertinent for those who went out even further than Proxima Centauri.
“Because of the health necessity of staying around 1G and minimizing weightlessness and lesser or greater gravities, that one factor determined just how far it was reasonable for an explorer and potential colonist to go. As such, HSA limited the search radius to just 30 light-years around Earth in every direction. If someone were to do a trip to the edge of that field and return back to Sol, a minimum of 64 years would have passed on Earth, plus whatever time they spent wherever they were going. For the travelers who returned, though, it would have been just 14 years, plus, again, whatever time they may have spent doing studies or setting up a colony. Those addition 50 years that would pass on Earth in their absence would create an insurmountable gap, basically meaning they had left their old lives behind forever!
“More so, in that radius, there are only 17 G-type stars, yellow ones like our sun Sol. If you need to know why that is important, we did an earlier video on this very topic.”
In the upper right-hand corner of the screen a box appeared that must have connected to the other video that Mach described. The card was a stationary image of Mach giving two thumbs down to a planet in the background and indicated the linked video was entitled “Why Proxima Centauri B is the Worst Colony”.
With the advertisement to the other video still hanging above his pointing avatar, Mach said, “Click the link onscreen now to learn about that. In a nutshell, planets circling close to red dwarf stars are not great—to say the least—so it was decided that efforts should be focused on rocky bodies around sun-like stars.
“Using telescopes in our home system and sending robotic missions to the exoplanets can only tell you so much, though. To really know for sure if we can possibly set up a colony and terraform a raw planet, we have to go there and see it with our own eyes. And perhaps even more important than that, human hands and minds are necessary in the search for signs of present or past life. Just because none has been found yet doesn’t mean it’s not out there!
“After some earlier exploratory missions proved fruitless both in the search for life and potential colonies, the criteria were further narrowed from G-type stars to ones that were very close to 1 solar mass—in other words, the size of Sol. Of the 17 G-type stars, this eliminated half of them right off the top. Then, based on the experience at Proxima Centauri B, scientists deemed that only very close Earth-analogues should be further investigated, planets where the size and gravity were almost equal to Earth and were located in a much tighter habitable zone than was considered before. Given all of these factors, that really only left a couple of places to physically go to and test out.
“As such, an exploratory mission was being organized to Delta Pavonis, which is about 19.9 light-years away from Earth. The roundtrip, including the planned two years to be spent in the system conducting experiments, would last almost 46 Earth-years and 14 for the crew. In other words, it was the equivalent of several missions unto itself. That is why HSA was completely shocked when Marco Chung volunteered.”
Snippets of a document were shown on screen that contained emails between HSA administrators discussing the pros and cons of allowing Marco to go on this mission. In the end, they decided that his experience would be too invaluable to deny him the opportunity to join the expedition.
After reviewing these documents and some details about the operation, Mach continued his soliloquy. “Following the Delta Pavonis assignment, Marco returned to Earth having lived through 50 years on his own personal clock while the planet had spun around the Sun over 91 times since his birth. Unfortunately, Marco had to contend with the fallout of the mission being a complete failure. There were no signs of past or present life and the only potential planet in the system proved completely unsuitable for a long-term human colony. Whereas Marco was mostly anonymous before this trip, his return brought him into the spotlight, which included shouldering part of the blame. While Marco never attempted to defend himself in public, others did, noting all that he sacrificed to try to make the endeavor a success. It seemed like after giving so much to the Human Expansion Program, Marco Chung was going to retire from it a pariah.
“But what a difference a year makes! A mission was heading out to the first, and at that time, only successful colony around a G-type star at Eta Cassiopeiae A, 19.4 light-years away. HSA allowed Marco to join the operation, but the consensus was that this was going to be his retirement cruise. Everyone assumed he was just flying the half trip and would settle into his solitude out on the colony now known as ‘Eden 2’, away from the scornful eyes back on Earth. Boy, were they surprised when just over 43 years after leaving, Marco landed back on Earth having lived 64 years from his frame of reference compared to the nearly 136 that had passed on Earth.
“HSA was not pleased to see Marco again. He had become a symbol of the organization’s failures. Although Eta Cassiopeiae A and its planet Eden 2 were a roaring success, the disappointments that culminated with Delta Pavonis emphasized one thing: humanity was trapped. They had run out of reasonable options within a 30-light-year radius and needed to start thinking about new possibilities while also keeping the public hopeful about the future and the program.
“Because of that, they decided to push the boundaries. A promising world was spotted around Delta Trianguli A, 35.4 light-years away. With the 3-year exploration and colonization component included, the mission would be over 77 Earth-years—which was at that time about three-quarters of a lifetime. Perhaps just to get rid of him, Marco was allowed to join this expedition, too. Unfortunately for all involved, a then nearly 83-year-old Marco Chung returned to Earth as a two-time loser over 214 years after his birth. The curse seemed real.”
The image on screen changed to some gloomy-faced meme that must have been popular when the video was made. There was no explanation as to the frame of reference, so it is impossible to say if it was even well-known by the potential viewers of this video.
“While he was away,” the returning Mach chimed in, “something amazing happened. Just five years after Marco and the crew left, the Quantum Shift breakthrough was made! After dealing with the initial accident during its discovery, the process was refined and the rules were created so that the technology could be safely implemented and applied to interstellar travel. In short order, the Quantum Drive and the Quantum Ships were created and a whole new exploration and colonization program began with renewed vigor!
“Sadly for Marco Chung and his crew, no one bothered to tell them! Instead of using one of the first missions to go out there and let them know about this revolutionary development, HSA decided it would be more economical to allow them to complete their mission as intended and use the freed-up resources for new exploration and colonization. Further, there were no data repeaters between systems in that era; and there certainly would not be any way out on the frontier even if they had been deployed elsewhere. Thus, it was completely impractical to even attempt to send them a message. By the time the message would have been received, they’d be well on their way home. Marco and his crew did not learn that they had completely wasted their time until they came down to Puerta Estrella.
“For the next three years, it seemed like Marco’s spacefaring days were over. Throughout the decades that contained Marco’s adventures, aside from the technological leaps in space navigation, many advances were made in the healthcare field—especially in the area of longevity. Upon each of his returns, Marco partook in every single one of these to further extend his life. Regrettably, many of these treatments needed to be taken earlier on in order to not only extend one’s life, but to suppress and sometimes reverse the aging process itself. Doctors have done all they can for Marco Chung, but he will always look significantly older than he actually is. Of course, all the exposure to radiation in the deep dark has certainly not helped the situation.
“Still, because of these treatments, even at around 85 of his personal years old, he was considered relatively middle-aged. That is when he decided to forgo all his rank and status and start over again, this time as a member of the Quantum Ship Fleet!”
Some type of musical overture started playing that was perhaps the anthem of the Quantum Ship Fleet. A picture of a Quantum Ship was shown on screen with an unidentifiable flag fluttering behind it. Numerous cartoon and video game characters from a variety of properties were saluting the ship and flag from the bottom of the screen.
“As such,” Mach said as the musical rendition came to an abrupt end, “Marco headed out on his first quantum expedition as a lowly deckhand. This time, though, the trip would be much, much, much quicker than his last trek. Every single quantum trip runs for 7.8 Earth-years and 6.2 years from the crew’s perspective. That is because even though we call them ‘Quantum Ships’, they are actually a hybrid of classic ‘Torch Drives’ and the ‘Quantum Shift Effect’. In all situations, the ships use the Torch Drive to fly one light-year away from whatever planet they started at, engage the Quantum Drive, appear one light-year from their destination, and then start the flipping and deceleration process. In other words, every voyage is technically just two light-years long.
“By the way, earlier I said the energy available for Torch Ships was nearly infinite. Well, that was a teensy-weensy little lie. It looks like it is infinite from our viewpoint, but there are some very real limitations that HSA scientists and engineers take into account. The Quantum Ships only need to reach 87% the speed of light, so the energy savings compared to a stand-alone Torch Ship are massive! Needing less fuel means that they don’t have to carry that excess weight. Due to that, they can instead bring more people and cargo with them, which has helped hasten the development of the colonization program.
“Anyway, typically, crews only spend a year at their destinations, whether it is a supply, exploratory, settlement, or some other kind of mission. Some of this layover has to do with the time to refuel the ship, as well as repair the engines from the natural wear-and-tear of actually using them. Either way, this has standardized many facets of the job that it lacked compared to when Marco first set out. Despite this, as highlighted before, most people still only do one or two of these missions. The dilation only amounts to a year and half, but the feeling of disconnect and isolation has been well documented by psychologists. A rather large percentage of crew members take an extra half trip and settle on a colony because they cannot deal with being out of sync relative to those they left behind.
“Still, it is not as if this will be the last time their friends and family on Earth will ever see them! Everyone who returns to Earth, including crew members like Marco Chung, are required to spend an entire year planet-side. For some reason, all humans—especially those who were born in the colonies, whether in the Sol System or in some extrasolar system—need to make at least one pilgrimage to the home world in their lifetime in consideration of their overall health. Oftentimes, multiple sabbaticals are necessary. Doctors do not really understand why, but being enveloped in Earth’s biosphere for a spell is essential for the effectiveness of the longevity treatments. The results are quite clear and measurable. Therefore, even though many people leave, they do have to come back for a long visit every once in a while in order to get the full benefits of their longevity treatment.
“HSA is particularly sensitive to this situation, so even the rare few individuals like Marco Chung who want to keep going out on missions must spend a year or more on Earth before heading out again.
“And keep going out Marco did! In total, including his most recent roundtrip to Novissimus, he has been on eleven Quantum Ship missions, more than anyone in existence! Although he started over at the bottom, he quickly rose back up through the ranks to being a captain. Marco is now considered the foremost expert on Torch and Quantum Ship functionality, as well as the technologies that keep colonies operational.
“Now, all of that background information we have gone through was necessary in order to bring us back to our original question of just how old is Marco Chung? Without further ado...”
But there was further ado as a long drumroll ensued with many false snare indicators that it was over. After over a minute and a half of this, there was a pop and graphics of confetti flowing all over the screen as the numbers appeared.
Highlighting those numerals, Mach said, “Marco Chung has lived almost 164 years by his own clock while 316 years have passed on Earth!”
An artificial audience cheered, oohed and aahed, and clapped in excitement. Mach accepted these platitudes without any semblance of modesty, basking in the moment before deciding to come back and wrap up his main thesis.
“Although humans can potentially live to a couple of hundred, maybe even 250 years now,” concluded Mach, “that most likely won’t be Marco Chung’s fate. He was born too far back, before these spans were even remotely possible. Unfortunately, his time may be coming to an end sooner rather than later. Yes, he could live for decades more, and who knows what advancements in longevity may be made in that time that could help him? Out in the colonies in particular, they are pursuing this path as they try to find ways to be less dependent upon Earth and needing to pause their lives for eight years just to improve the treatments’ success rates. Thus, something may be in the process of being discovered as we speak! Still, I want to be realistic about Marco’s future. All signs indicate that he wants to go out on another mission, so realistically, he’ll probably die out there at some point—whether it's the next journey or the one after that or even the one after that one. And perhaps that is what he wants!
“Afterall, there is no one else who is alive from when Marco was born. He has no family, no known descendants of his own, no one he is connected to. Owing to his limited time spent anywhere that was not in outer space, he does not even have a close network of friends. To him, almost everyone is a complete stranger.”
The above piece is an excerpt from the speculative hard science fiction novel Compendium of Humanity's End by J.P. Prag, available at booksellers worldwide.
Learn more about author J.P. Prag at www.jpprag.com.
Compendium of Humanity's End is a work of mixed fiction and nonfiction elements. With the fiction elements, any names, characters, places, events, and incidents that bear any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental. For the nonfiction elements, no names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated except for hypothetical situations.
About the Creator
J.P. Prag is the author of "Compendium of Humanity's End", "254 Days to Impeachment", "Always Divided, Never United", "New & Improved: The United States of America", and "In Defense Of...", and more! Learn more at www.jpprag.com.