Four's a Crowd

By E.S. Strout

"Open the pod bay door please, Hal."

The screen displayed: "Personal password and voice print match: Andrew Jackson Shaw, Space Corps Commander Special Projects, ID 3008-1171. Top secret clearance confirmed."

General Shaw popped a tiny chip into the VideoTrac, pressed PLAYBACK. For several seconds a kaleidoscope of shifting crystalline images flickered across the CRT monitor. Then a flicker of gray haze, followed by uncompromising blackness. The screen was frosted with staticky snow when the downlink was lost. Shaw nodded with satisfaction as he voice-activated his COMM line. "Muster the troops, Captain Andrews."

"Attention on deck!" Five two-person teams dressed in Space Corps interstellar flight gear rose as one. The Security Division NCO and his corporal checked implanted I.D. chips with Alpha scanners and snapped to rigid attention. "Good morning, General Shaw. All crews present and accounted for. I.D.’s verified." The Special Projects C.O., a tall bespectacled black man returned their salutes. "Thank you, Sergeant." He entered the conference room, followed by his aide. "At ease, gentlemen and ladies. Be seated."

"Got your fingers crossed, Amy?" Astropilot Paul Broderick whispered to the young woman next to him.

She fidgeted. Uncrossed her legs. Recrossed them. "I’m about to piss my pants. Think we have a chance?"

"Better believe it. We’ve logged hundreds of extra hours of FTL time, nailed every damn drill . . ."

Amy gnawed a fingernail. "Hmpf. So have the other teams."

"Any guesses on the mission?"

"Top Secret ride," she whispered in her soft North Carolina drawl. "Can’t be star chart upgrades, colony census or belligerents surveillance. Somethin’ much bigger."

"Captain Andrews, final results, please." The General’s aide handed him a printout. "This selection has been based on an exhaustive evaluation of team performance. Only tenths of percentage points have separated you all. There is no stigma attached to rejection." The room’s hush was palpable. The general adjusted his glasses, then unfolded the page and cleared his throat. "Astropilot Major Paul Broderick. Mission Specialist Amanda Novacek, PhD . . . I envy you." "Yes!" The partners slapped triumphant high fives while the losers offered muted congratulations.

* * *

"Security clearances verified. I’m authorized now to give you details," General Shaw said as he loaded the VideoTrac and pressed play. "This recording is from an unmanned probe with cold fusion-boosted intergalactic propulsion, a tachyon-enhanced transmission received at 0328 today." His voice assumed a confidential hush. "We believe it represents the expanding rim of the universe."

There were seconds of awed, gaping silence. "It’s finite?"

"Best evidence we’ve had yet, Major Broderick."

Dr. Novacek tapped the screen with a fingertip. "The haze . . . artifact?"

The general shrugged. "Unknown. Spectrographic readings are off scale. Computer analysis guys are stumped."

Dr. Novacek breathed a reverent sigh. "Boundary of space. We’re gonna be the first, Major. The first!"

"We’ve got a GALILEO-class ship all gassed up for you. Same as the unmanned probe, refitted to carry a crew of two. Same upgraded hyperspace drive," General Shaw said. "Automated ultrasensitive video cameras. Your Command computer has the latest hi-tech analytic software installed."

"Sounds good to me," Major Broderick said.

Amy cleared her throat softly. "The downside please, general?"

General Shaw raised an eyebrow. "Knew I could count on you, Dr. Novacek. Of course this trip will be hazardous. The probe’s been lost. It failed to respond to repeated communication attempts. Time and space parameters may have been altered in . . . unusual ways."

"Unusual how, sir?"

"Unknown, Major. We’ve not been confronted with anything like this before. The probe may have found a time warp. A cosmic Bermuda Triangle, if you will. All theory, of course. We can’t guarantee . . ."

Dr. Novacek stopped him with a raised hand. "We volunteered, sir."

Astropilot Broderick hoisted a clenched fist in agreement.

"God go with you."

"We’ll be in His back yard."

* * *

Major Broderick checked the aft viewscreen. Only bright diamond points of stars punctuated the stygian vastness of space. The Solar System had faded from view.

"We’re clear, Amy."

Dr. Novacek checked the instrument panel, gave Broderick a grin and a thumbs-up. "Green board, all systems."

"Roger that. Inertial dampers to max retro-G’s."

She flipped a series of switches. "Maximum, check."

"Strapped in, Doc?"

"Let’s do it."

Major Broderick keyed FTL PROGRAM START. There was a faint hum as the intergalactic drive engaged. Light faded to a dim red glow from the cockpit’s status displays. He shook his head to clear away the FTL acceleration startup cobwebs. "How do we look, Professor?"

Amy gave the status displays a quick scan. "A-OK, Major." She slapped his extended hand. "We’re in the pipe, five by five!"

Broderick unstrapped, stretched and stepped to the tiny forward viewport. "Our personal laser light show," he said in a reverent whisper.

Dr. Novacek watched over his shoulder at the cacophony of coiling, glittering multicolored streaks. "Galaxies, Major. Billions of ‘em in an eyeblink. Like Dave Bowman’s trip through the star gate. You know, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Movie chip from the Golden Oldies file."

"One of my all-time favorites, Professor."

"I’ve got increasing thermographic readouts," Broderick said as he scrolled data on the Command CRT.

"Fits our predictions to a tee. We’re gettin’ close to the edge. I can feel it. Primordial galaxies. Mostly gaseous. Their light will never be seen on Earth. Our system’ll be in the dustbin of history by the time it gets there."

The Astropilot grinned. "But you physics geeks know something I don’t, right?"

Amy poked a finger in his chest. "Geeks, my Tarheel ass. Twentieth century theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking predicted the universe would be finite. Nobody’s proven him wrong. If space folds on itself at the edge the way our calculations indicate, we’ll return in a picosecond. You can’t blink your eyelids that fast. And we’ll have everything on VideoTrac."

He gripped her shoulder. "If your Tarheel theories work out, drinks are on me when we get back."

She gave him a coy grin. "I won’t forget, you know."

Seconds later a soft, insistent hissing sound surrounded them. Dr. Novacek adjusted a screen. "Elemental particles bouncing off the shields. Trillions of ‘em. The VideoTrac haze. We’ve hit the rim!"

Broderick rubbed his eyes, blinked as the haze faded to absolute blackness. "Holy shit. There’s . . . nothing."

"Good God." Dr. Novacek stared at the NAV CRT monitor. "It’s gibberish." She mopped her brow with a gloved hand. "I’ve got no input. No reference points. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Where in Creation are we?"

Major Broderick triggered an index finger. "You’re the navigator, Prof. You should know."

"Rhetorical question, Major. I’m tryin’ to calculate now . . ." There was a sudden decelerating whine. She winced as she covered her ears. "The inertial dampers. We just went sublight. Are we . . .?"

"Command computer’s programmed to return us to normal space when we approach . . . wait one." Major Broderick brushed a thin film of frost from the viewport with a fingertip. "The stars are back."

The NAV computer came back on line with a beep. Dr. Novacek viewed the new graphics with satisfaction. "Are you seein’ this, Major?"

Broderick peered at the tactical readout. "These star configurations look damn familiar."

Amy cracked a smug grin. "Switching to visual. Check this out."

"Space station. It’s . . . ours. Geez Louise!"

"Aha. You get it? Hawking was right. So there."

"The old physics geek? The picosecond thing?"

"Y’all hush now. Show some respect. Dr. Hawking theorized that if the space-time continuum became infinite, time would cease to exist as we know it." Amy batted a stray blond lock from her face. "We’ve just confirmed it. The expandin’ edge has retained properties of the original Big Bang Singularity. Space folded on itself, time became nonexistent for less than an eyeblink like I said, and we’re home."

Major Broderick keyed a secure channel. "Control, this is Broderick Novacek probe Sierra Charlie Papa-One. Over." No response. "Weird."

"Special Projects doesn’t answer either," Dr. Novacek said. "In your words, Major. Weird."

The Astropilot peered through the viewport, an expression of puzzlement stamped on his face. "Look, Amy . . . in Docking Bay One. GALILEO-class intergalactic probe."

"I’m impressed. General Shaw’s guys found it."

"And brought it back."

Amy batted her eyelashes. "We’re back too, Paul, Major, sir."

He gave a sigh of acquiescence. "Okay. So I owe you a drink. Lots of drinks. Docking stations, please. At least those guys are home."

* * *

"They didn’t seem too happy about our arrival, Major."

"Didn’t expect us. The military is like this, Amy. Top secret security, need to know, all that. The docking crew doesn’t have our level of clearance. Plus, we interrupted their lunch break."

"No welcoming committee? Let’s find the general."

General Shaw was not in his office. "Try the conference room," his secretary said. "Some kind of special event."

Two Security Division NCO’s were stationed at the entrance. After they scanned the I.D. chips, the senior man fidgeted uneasily. "Problem, sergeant?" Major Broderick asked.

"A glitch with the scans, sir. Some overlap with a prior entry . . ."

The Astropilot put a finger to his lips for silence. "At ease, sergeant. Go ahead, Professor."

She cracked the door and peered inside. General Shaw’s eloquent voice resounded. "Captain Andrews, final results, please . . . This selection has been based on an exhaustive evaluation . . ."

Amy’s eyes grew wide. "Oh, God . . ."

"What is it, Amy?" Broderick asked.

She mopped perspiration from her brow. "It wasn’t the unmanned probe in the docking bay, Major. Got that video chip?"

Broderick patted a breast pocket. "Right here, Prof."

She gave him a resigned smile. "Let’s go in. We’re gonna save ourselves a trip."

The End

Copyright © 2003 by E.S. Strout

Bio: E.S. Strout is assistant clinical professor in pathology at the U.C. Irvine Medical Center. He has been previously published in Demensions and Planet.



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