The Bridge Across Eternity

By Swanand Arole

"Are you out of your mind Ray? This thing will bury us. A year from now we’ll all be working on the Olympus Road in purgatory."

Max Donahue could barely contain his fury, interlaced with a fair amount of trepidation. Raymond Atkins had finally done it. Committed their firm to do an impossible job. At an impossible price. As the second largest stock holder and joint President of Skyways Inc., Donahue stood to loose the most from this crazy misadventure. After Atkins himself, who was the CEO and Chairman of Skyways.

" Maybe. But I think I have an idea how we can lick this thing and still stay out of jail."

" Oh! You have an idea, have you?" Donahue got up from his chair and started pacing up and down the boardroom. He was really pissed. " And meanwhile we have to continue running this company on the presumption that your idea will work?"

A TV set at the far corner of the room was running CNBC Transglobal on mute. Every time code SKYI came up on the ticker at the bottom of the screen, Donahue would take a quick look at it hopefully. But this morning all trades relating to SKYI were sell trades. The scrip was already down a whopping thirteen percent since last evening's close. It was quoting at $ 87 an hour after trading. Still four and a half hours to go before outage.

" The bears are going to murder us," thought Donahue, " and this is just the beginning. Ten years of work down the drain. And for what? Just to spite ‘ol Tin Man?"

" Relax guys. Gentlemen, let us all take a brief vacation – say a week – and when we come back, I’ll tell you how Skyways is going to build the Cygnus Route. Let me remind you that at an estimated traffic of a seven hundred and fifty ships an hour, we stand to make a lot of money from this project. In fact we will be the biggest construction company in the Galaxy at the end of the next financial year. Meanwhile, I see that our scrip is getting plastered on the street. I suggest you let it sink further for a week. Then buy. Buy with all you can leverage."

" Buy! Buy…" incredulity was written large on Donahue’s face, " A week from now, we’ll be lucky to get ten cents to a dollar for SKYI," he turned to the rest of the board of directors, who looked to be in different stages of dejection – from the contrite to those about to have a fit, " I strongly suggest you do as the man says. Take a vacation. It will be the last time you are likely to enjoy one in a long time."

" C’mon Max, don’t be so dramatic. You gotta have faith," Ray said, looking reprovingly at Donahue and the rest of his board members, "We’ll all be rich people a year from now. Once we build the Cygnus Route."

" If we build the Cygnus Route, you idiot. And it can’t be done. The best scientists in the Galaxy have gone on record saying that it can’t be done. Jesus! When are you going to get it into your thick egoistic skull that you have been had? It was a dud tender from the start, you imbecile. Floated specifically to trap you into doing something stupid, like bidding. But not even the ol’ Tin Man in his wildest dreams would have imagined that his son in law would fall for the bait in the fashion in which you did. Ten billion dollars! Christ! You can’t build a descent road on Mars with ten Gs these days. Why do you think we bagged the contract to build the Cygnus Route for just 10 Gs a year? Because nobody else is stupid, that’s why. Jesus! Somebody get me a shrink. This guy needs his head examined."

Raymond Atkins smiled. Max was his best friend. They’d built this company from scratch into a respectable joint and it was mostly due to Max Donahue’s brilliance as a tough manager. And Ray’s own tactical brilliance and vision. They were as perfect a combination as anyone had seen since Watson and Holmes.

" Like I said, we all need a break. Let’s reconvene in a week’s time. By then I’ll have a plan. Maybe." Ray looked at his old friend Max and smiled, " Meeting adjourned."

* * *


An hour later, Raymond Atkins rang the doorbell of his home in suburban Phobos city. He looked forward to seeing his wife Diva. They needed some time together.

Nuts opened the door and welcomed him home. Nuts was their butler. He’d been with them since they set up this home after their marriage two years ago. He looked like a late nineteenth century English gentleman. Acted like one too. Very refined with a quaint old world charm. They loved him.

Ray had never gotten used to addressing Nuts in the masculine gender. After all, a cyborg had no gender, male or female. But Diva had insisted on addressing their butler in the masculine and her maid, Knotty, in the feminine. Ray had relented after a time.

" She has me wrapped around her little finger, dammit!" Ray thought happily as he looked around the familiar homely décor of his house, tastefully done in light pastel greens. " Now, if only her dad was out of our lives!"

But Ray knew that that was asking providence for too much. His cup of joy was already running over. Still, every silver lining has its cloud. And in Ray’s life, that cloud took on the form of Diva’s father Jason T. Jacobson III, multi -Trillionaire, Chairman of Jacobson Spaceways and after the last elections, the Honorable Senator representing over twenty billion people from the remote Solar Colonies.

" Hi, love," Ray said, sinking into a large chair in their terrace overlooking a valley of bare rock formations surrounding Phobos city. Mars was setting over the horizon and the entire atmosphere was a study in crimson. Crimson rocks, gentle crimson hills, deep red valleys and no trees. Not on the outside, that is. Their house was full of large palm trees and assorted varieties of other plants that Diva nurtured like her own children. The green plants went well with the interior.

"You’re late," Diva said hugging him.

" Well, better late than never." Ray smiled into her light brown eyes.

" So what’s your excuse this time? Traffic? Or daddy?" Diva had a mischievous glint in her eyes.

" A man has to do some things in his life which he cannot blame on his wife’s father. Although, in my case it is hard enough to do that."

Diva made a face and gave him canned apple juice.

" I need something stronger than juice today," Ray went to the bar and filled a glass with three fingers of Seagram’s Royal Vintage. He read the date on the bottle and nodded satisfied. 2131. It was 12 years old.

" Problem?" Diva looked at him over her juice, the smile fading in her eyes.

" Well, your old man set me a nice little trap. It is mankind’s general belief that I fell for it hook line and sinker. Contrary to public opinion, I don’t think so."

" What trap?" Diva was getting mildly worried. Her dad was a good hater and she knew that he would never forgive her for marrying below their station. And never forgive Ray for taking his precious little girl away from him.

" There was this Tender to develop the Cygnus Route. Nothing huge and normally too small for your dad to bother with. A three-quarters of a light year long passage between the Olivander minefields and Cygnus City. They propose to lease out that route to any developer willing to pay a fixed yearly fee. The developer has to build a navigational system to guide traffic safely in that region of space. In remuneration for doing this, the developer gets the exclusive rights to collect a road tax of a million dollars per ship on a round trip."

Ray filled another glass. Diva was listening to him sipping apple juice. She had a premonition that her man had done something drastic. She knew Ray and she also knew that he’d never turn away from a challenge. Sometimes it made her mad. But then she admired his idealistic attitude. He reminded her of a modern day Lochinvar charging on a white steed. She looked out the window at the barren Phobos landscape and in spite of herself, she grinned, " Quite a long way from the average Scottish Moore."

" So what’s the big deal? Sounds like a simple, boring job." She said.

" It is. Except that I bid to pay ten billion dollars in fixed annual fees to the government. For the next thirty years."

" Doesn’t sound too much," she said frowning a little. She was used to seeing her dad deal with sums far in excess of this. " How many ships do your planners think this route will attract?"

" Traffic about seven hundred and fifty per hour, 6.57 million per year. We’d be attracting most of your dad’s customers from the old Olivander cargo route. Don’t forget, the old Olivander route is the busiest route in the galaxy, ferrying a trillion tones of Uranium ore a day from the Olivander mines to Cygnus City. The old route is about thrice as long as our proposed route. And your dad charges one and a half million per ship. He could get away with it too. Till now."

" Dad may have his faults but he’s nobody’s fool. You can’t be stupid and make as much money as he does. What did he bid for the new Tender?"

" He didn’t. Nobody did."

" Why?" she did some math in her head, " at a million dollars a ship, you’d make, lets see, about six and a half trillion per year. Plus change. Minus ten billion in fees. Looks too good to me. Too good to be true. What’s the catch?"

" Touché!" Raymond said sighing, " as you know, the developer for the route also insures the cargo on his route. If any damage to ship or cargo occurs on a route, the developer of the route pays. Standard procedure."

" So? That’s normal practice. What can damage a ship in deep space? Except pirates. And your insurance doesn’t cover piracy. That’s the problem of the shipping companies. I still don’t see why my dad isn’t interested. Or why you say it is a trap."

" I don’t say it’s a trap. Max does. And the rest of the pundits." Raymond grinned.

" Why? C’mon Ray, it makes me mad when you treat me like a little girl. Tell me. I need to know. And don’t fill another glass, dinner is about to be served in a minute."

" The problem, as you put it, is Cygnus A."

" What about Cygnus A?"

" It lies dead on our route from Cygnus City to the Olivander mines."

" What’s so great about that? Get your traffic diverted around it. Would add a few hundred thousand kilometers to your route. All in the accepted width for the route. Insignificant."

" It’s not that simple," Raymond sighed again. He got up and filled another three fingers of Seagram’s as Diva watched reprovingly. " One doesn’t smartly alter course for a few hundred thousand kilometers around Cygnus A. In fact, if one is smart, one doesn’t go a million kilometers near Cygnus A in any direction. Max and your dad figure that the route for which I’ve bid will transport only one ship in thirty years. For which we’ll have to fork out the insurance money for the entire ship and cargo. Max and the rest of mankind thinks that after the unfortunate first voyage on my route, all traffic will cease. For all time to come. In the meantime, I’ll have to pay ten Gs a year, for thirty years. Or face litigation for breach of contract. Max thinks that it’s your dad’s idea of destroying me. He knew I couldn’t resist bidding for the route and hurting your dad’s bottom line by eating into his customer base. He’s right."

" But why? I still don’t see the big deal."

Raymond sighed a third time that evening and said, " Our route has a sanctioned width of a hundred thousand kilometers. That means we own the right of way for a hypothetical tube in space with a diameter of a hundred thousand kilometers and a length of about three-quarters of a light year, from Cygnus city to Olivander Spaceport. Cygnus A lies smack in the middle of that thin tube – like a cork blocking the tube - half a trillion miles out from Cygnus City.

"Cygnus A is a black hole."

* * *

A week later, the boardroom of Skyways Incorporated witnessed the usual members assembling with very unusual expressions on their faces. The week’s vacation had, apparently, done them no good. In fact, they looked gloomier than when they had dispersed a week ago.

Sharply at 11, Raymond walked in briskly.

" The first item on the agenda is the demand for the resignation of the CEO and Chairman Mr. Raymond Atkins. On behalf of my principles, I move for the resignation of Mr. Atkins." The representative of the banks fired the first salvo.

Raymond had anticipated the move. He looked around to see who would play the role of Brutus.

" I second the motion."

All heads turned towards the speaker.

Max Donahue!

"Et Tu?" Raymond laughed.

" Be sensible Ray," Max implored across the boardroom, " it’s our company we’re talking about. Our baby. You’ll still be majority shareholder. Our stock’s quoting $32 this morning. That’s down 64% from a week ago. We all are loosing money. Our bankers are calling in the debts. Our credit is gone. Nobody wants to touch us. We’re lepers. If you resign, our lawyers can try and squirm us out of the Cygnus Route fiasco. It’ll cost us, and hurt us bad. But we’ll live as a company to fight another day."

" And I suppose this has nothing to do with Jacobson’s offer of thirty dollars a share for a 51% stake in Skyways? I wonder who’s going to be CEO. You, Max? Look at your face. Its gone absolutely friggin’ red." Raymond laughed.

" Cut it Ray," Max said in a tone which was all business, " We’re running a business here. Not a family feud."

" Well, I thought we were a business which meant family, Max. But I see now that you see us more as a family, which means business. OK. I own 26% in this company. What’s your stake in this? 25%? Good. Name your price."

" What?"

" I said ‘name your price’."

" Now look here…"

" So you won’t sell to me, your ol’ pal? And you will sell to the ‘ol Tin Man? Is that it?"

" Dammit! I’d rather burn my shares than do that, you know that Ray. But I don’t have a choice."

" I’m giving you one. Name your price."

" Make me an offer I can’t refuse, you egotistical son of a bitch. And don’t tell me later that I didn’t warn you."

" Fifty dollars. For your 25%. That comes to about two billion. Payable cash. Now." Raymond reached into his pocket and flipped over a check to Max.

" Where’d you get the money Ray?" Max, along with the rest of the boardroom members, just looked at the check lying face down on the table. A cool two Gs.

" Sold some of my stock a week ago. Before I put in the bid. Look it up. It’s listed with the SEC. Bought it all back yesterday morning. There’s the difference." Raymond pointed a lazy forefinger at the check.

" Just like that huh? You had it all figured out, didn’t you? Well, I’ll take you up on it. Send me the papers to sign. See you in hell."

With that, Max Donahue barged out of the boardroom of Skyways Incorporated for the last time.

* * *

The next year saw Skyways plummeting from one of the reputed Spaceway firms to a dud whom nobody dared touch. The rumor was that it was run by a madman who was running it to the ground.

As the date for the opening of the infamous Cygnus-Olivander Route neared, Raymond Atkins became a reclusive figure working late in his office and drinking heavily. His staff lived in dread of the man’s temper, which seemed to grow short with every passing day.

Diva worried day and night at their home in the suburbs, waiting for him to get home. He was rarely home these days. He had set up a grueling schedule of visits to the site of the proposed Spaceway to collect myriad forms of data. The office computers were de-linked from the Galacnet and were operating as a stand alone, segregated unit, crunching numbers and doing arcane calculation 24 hours a day. Password security for these computers had reached fanatical proportions, with the codes being changed every three hours.

It looked like Raymond Atkins didn’t want anybody to know what he was up to.

And he was succeeding. Not because of the security precautions and secrecy surrounding all his moves, but because nobody was interested in what happened to him. Except two people. Diva, because her life was intertwined with his. And her dad, who seemed to be having the best time of his life. There were rumors that the old grouch even laughed at party jokes these days.

* * *

Finally the day arrived for the opening of the Cygnus-Olivander route. With a minimum of fuss and a few press reporters at hand, Raymond Atkins climbed into an old dilapidated ore carrier, which was barely space worthy and set off from Cygnus city towards the Olivander ore fields.

Cargo ships were generally unmanned crafts, but Raymond had decided to personally open the Spaceway. He announced this two nights before the event at a small press conference.

" The fool is going to commit suicide. Let him have his day in the sun," thought the Honorable Senator Jacobson. He was not alone in thinking such uncharitable thoughts.

However, the good senator almost had a heart attack when he heard that Raymond’s wife – his daughter – was going to accompany him on the Cygnus-Olivander maiden voyage.

With a final wave to the small crowd, Raymond and Diva shot out of the Cygnus City Spaceport. Ten seconds later, their ship vanished from sight of the gathered reporters.

* * *

The Honorable Senator Jacobson lost twenty pounds in the next week. Twenty pounds of organic tissue. His skeleton had long since been replaced by an alloy of tin. Some genetic disorder known as arthritis. The name "Tin Man" was only partly because of this. The other story was that Jacobson Spaceways controlled more than seventy percent of the traffic in tin in the entire Galaxy. Along with Uranium, through the old Olivander corridor.

If all went well, Raymond and Diva were to reach the Olivander Spaceport in a month’s time. If all went well. But how can all go well? Hell! How can anything go well? What about the bloody black hole? What about Cygnus A? There was no way they could avoid crossing the event horizon of Cygnus A. No way in hell! Their flight path took them right smack through the Black Hole. They were toast. Or spaghetti.

They must be. Poor Diva. So much life in her. And now she was dying for the bastard. At least he ought to have shown some sense and forbid her from going with him. What kind of love was that?

The Tin Man lost a few more pounds of flesh a week after that. Still no news of the Atkins couple.

The only other person who was worried sick was Max Donahue, who was heading an up and coming tech company specializing in genetically modified human organs. Max hated to see his old pal destroy himself due to plain bull headedness.

If all went well, Raymond and Diva were expected at Olivander Spaceport in a moth’s time.

They made it in sixteen days.

* * *

The next week saw Skyways Incorporated stock rocket from its nadir of 7 dollars to an astounding 385 dollars to a share. Every day SKYI was hitting the upper circuit filter of the bourses across the Solar System. And there was no end in sight to the buying frenzy. After all which other company was going to make six and a half trillion net per year? Assuredly for the next thirty years?

Raymond Atkins, the man who made headlines on all the News channels across the Galaxy for a week, had not spoken to the press in a week since his historic voyage.

The Honorable Senator Jacobson was unavailable for comment. It was said, however, that although his company scrip shed a lot of dollars in value, the Senator had gained some pounds over the week. In organic mass.

Max Donahue was kicking himself every time he looked at the CNBC ticker tape.

* * *

"How the hell did you do it Mr. Atkins?"

That was the first question Raymond fielded at the press conference. After he got back from a well-deserved vacation with his wife.

" Well, I knew that you couldn’t cross the event horizon of a black hole and live to tell the tale. I also knew that there was no rocket powerful enough to let us travel close to Cygnus A and not be pulled in by its gravitational force. Definitely not as near as a hundred thousand kilometers from the event horizon. So I spent an year calculating the exact physical location and characteristics of the black hole and came to the conclusion that the only way out was through the black hole."

This last remark stunned the reporters so much that an entire minute passed before somebody decided to ask the next, obvious, question.

" Are you trying to tell us that you traveled through Cygnus A?"

" Yes."

" But Cygnus A is a black hole." One of the younger reporters blurted out.

" Now that you mention it, it is. We went through the event horizon on our way to Olivander port." Raymond Atkins said smugly.

" But how?"

" Well, like I told you, I spent the last year studying the physical characteristics of Cygnus A. After much thought I decided that the best flight path was through Cygnus A. Through the event horizon. Instead of trying to spend energy to oppose the gravitational pull of Cygnus A, I decided to fall into its gravity well, accelerating all the way. Due to Cygnus A’s tremendous gravitational pull, we crossed the event horizon a fraction under the speed of light in vacuum –99.999% of c. We hit the luminal barrier - the speed of light in vacuum – just a fraction of a millimeter INSIDE the event horizon, still accelerating. "

Raymond paused to take a sip from a glass of water. All the people gathered were hanging on his words. The same guys who’d written him off for the past year were lapping up his every word. He smiled wryly and continued,

" As you know the speed of light in vacuum is the absolute speed limit for everything in this universe. No massive body can travel at the speed of light in vacuum –c – let alone pass it. In this Universe. But these same laws of physics forbid the existence of a singularity. And a singularity must exist inside a black hole as proved by Steven Hawking in the later part of the twentieth century. Elementary physics."

" We crossed the luminal barrier just inside the event horizon of Cygnus A. As predicted by the pundits, and according to the laws of Physics, all our positive mass energy was lost in a luminal flash – much like a supersonic plane emits a sonic boom while crossing the sound barrier. As we continued to fall towards the singularity inside the event horizon of Cygnus A past the speed of light in vacuum, our NEGATIVE mass increased."

" Now a black hole has a unique property of attracting all massive objects and gobbling them up into oblivion once they cross the event horizon. The operative phrase here is " all massive objects". Objects with mass. POSITIVE mass."

" As our negative mass increased, the natural tendency of the black hole that is Cygnus A was to repel us out with all its gravitational power. Cygnus A spit us out across its event horizon in the opposite direction from which we entered. We decelerated the ship just enough so that we were just under the speed of light in vacuum a micrometer after we crossed the event horizon. But the momentum of the fling threw us farther than we had calculated. That’s why we are here a fortnight before our scheduled arrival. It turned out to be a nice bonus. Now the travel time from Cygnus City to Olivander is just sixteen days. Cygnus A proved to be an accelerator rather than a decelerator. Which is an added bonus. Skyways incorporated are running a packed schedule on its Cygnus- Olivander Route for the next five years. We’re doing a thousand ships an hour. For now."

" But what about negative mass? How did you and your wife – real, live human beings – survive negative mass?"

" Oh that’s just mathematical. If you are on the North Pole and you travel north, which direction do you go? Mathematically, you go south, right? What difference does that make to you as a human being? Nothing. At the North Pole north and south are merely the extreme cases of a metric we have chosen. These boundaries are mathematical, not physical. Same with positive and negative mass. At the speed of light in vacuum, your mathematical sign for mass is changed from positive to negative. Conversely, you could say that from your point of view, the rest of the universe has negative mass. Which is not allowed by the laws of physics. Except inside a black hole. Then you can use negative mass as anti-gravity. Makes no difference to living beings. Nor to the cargo being shipped on the Cygnus Route."

Raymond Atkins rose to close the news conference.

" Ladies and Gentlemen, the Cygnus Route is open for traffic as of a week ago. I wish you all bon voyage."

The End

Copyright © 2002 by Swanand Arole

"I want to write stories that cram ideas mile- a- minute. The future has its own set of problems ready for us. I want to explore those. I've written a book, which explores the future of the latest scientific theories and their philosophical implications. The book is in need of a publisher!

Some of my short stories have been published in e zines (four of them here in Aphelion) and I am in search of a publisher who will publish them as a collection in book form.

The science in my stories, I am ready to defend. The characters, I admit, behave indefensibly."

Previous appearances in Aphelion are:
No News is Good News, Fool Circle, A Case of Slow, and The Quantum Hello.


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