Curtain Call

By Shaun A. Saunders

"Do not adjust your set. This is a 2D transmission," was replaced by the intriguing title of an ancient repeat from the early nineties called 'Consider This.' I eased back in my chair and, both feet on the desk, decided that the remaining half bottle of Jack Daniels should provide at least another hour’s anaesthetic, by which time the flat little einsteinian figure with the trademark wiry hair and flailing arms would be replaced by MTV.

It was 2000 hrs on New Year’s Eve, 2010, and I was alone in the monitoring centre of the Cape York Space Centre. Well, almost alone; from time to time muted laughter of off-duty colleagues crept into my office from the canteen down the corridor. As luck would have it, I drew the short straw and was rostered on until 0600 New Year’s Day. I wouldn’t need to be here at all except that at approximately midnight eastern standard time we were expecting a transmission from the Armadeus – the first faster than light ship built by man. Two weeks ago it had eased out of the orbiting lunar dockyard on ion propulsion until a week later when, clear of the solar system, it had blasted on toward Alpha Centauri on the fantastically powerful tachyon drive. The thrust of this unit is provided by nature’s own particle, the tiny tachyon, an anti-particle which must always travel faster than the speed of light and henceforth backwards in time. Of course, all communications are still restricted to existing technologies on this side of the light barrier, and so the message of peace and goodwill from the Armadeus would actually have been sent six days before.

In the concave bowl of the television my einsteinian friend begged for my attention, attempting to seduce me with pseudo-intellectual / scientific discussion.

"Consider this: if a tree falls in the forest and there is no living thing to hear it, did it make any noise?"

Boring. Strictly kid’s stuff.

"Consider this: a straight line may be represented as a plot of the shortest distance between two fixed points, A and B. However, between those two points lie an infinity of further points; that is, each miniscule distance being divisible again and again. Therefore, it is impossible to draw this imaginary line because our imaginary biro would need to cover an infinite number of points in a finite time to link A and B."

Not necessarily so. The now acknowledged fact that space is curved suggests that it may be possible to join A and B with a line drawn through finitely indivisible hyperspace in a finite time span, greater than or equal to zero.

"Consider this: the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Particles like electrons are so small that there is no way of observing them without altering either their speed or position. Therefore, knowing the speed of an electron, its exact position was reduced to the probability of its being found at any place. The world is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine. Stay tuned for more brain teasers after this commercial …

Consider this: if a beam of electrons is allowed to fall on a plate with two very fine slits cut in it, A and B, they will behave like waves rather than particles and form interference patterns by the time they reach the fluorescing screen opposite. Dark stripes denote waves out of step and bright stripes waves reinforcing each over, like waves at the beach. Now, if electrons are allowed to fall slowly, one at a time, on our diffraction plate, then the same scintillation pattern is recorded on the adjacent screen. But, if a single electron can only go through one slit, if any, then how can it interfere with itself and never arrive at a dark node? Only waves can be out of step, but only particles can produce individual scintillations. The precise position of the electron is afforded by its fluorescent impact on the screen and therefore we cannot be certain about the path it took to reach it. So, its probable path can be said to be as likely to have come through either of the slits or both, hence the interference pattern. This discovery prompted a normally placid Albert Einstein to exclaim "God does not play dice." …..

….. The first man who dared to suggest that the earth was not the centre of the universe but was instead a minor body rotating about our sun was a Greek named Aristarchus of Samos, in about 300 BC. However it was not until two thousand years later and after such luminaries as Copernicus and Kepler were ridiculed, or, in the case of Galileo, placed under house arrest, that the establish church of Christ grudgingly accepted this new status on the fringe of the galaxy."

I sympathised with them. Shortly before the official launch of the Armadeus, Walter Symmes, self-appointed spokesman of the flat earth society, declared on the Gerry Springer show that the whole project was doomed to failure because, as any logical person knows, the stars are lights in the sky only a few thousand miles apart. He further added that the human race was being subjected to the most expensive hoax in history. Under Gerry’s gentle probing Symmes expounded that the earth is flat, and the major land masses grouped about the central point of the north pole. Finally, agitated by cat-calls from the audience (most of whom, unbelievably, appeared even older than Gerry), Walter claimed biblical support for his society’s beliefs, pointing out that Moses, author of the first five books of the Old Testament, wrote of the heaven above and the earth beneath …

"Consider this: our sun, Sol, is classified as a yellow-white G2V star midway between the largest and the smallest stars, and between the hot blue-whites and the coolest reds. Antares, a cool red super giant, is several hundred times larger than our sun. One of the brightest stars in our heavens is the far distant Rigel. However, as it takes light from Rigel over nine hundred years to reach the earth, we are not seeing it as it is now, but rather how it was when an unfortunate King named Harold was struck in the eye by an arrow on the shores of Normandy. Also, as the stars in the milky way are constantly moving, they are not even where they appear to have been."

I put the milky way on hold as a computer announced the incoming vid from the Armadeus. There would be an eight minute delay before the tight-beam message from the stars was relayed around the world and back to the lunar colony. Should I feel it necessary in the interests of international security and what, I could apply censorship and the judicious use of computer-enhanced video pre-recordings.

Switching the vid to main holo, Captain Eric Roget, commander of the Armadeus, appeared next to my desk and as realistic as any guest on the Gerry Springer show. But something was wrong. Roget’s usual ‘Boys Own’ countenance was replaced by that of a man broken and wearied far beyond his thirty-five years. His voice was dull, and he omitted the usual pleasantries.

"Pacaula. I hope we’re on eight minute hold. Just in case, I’ll break transmission for thirty seconds."

The ghost continued.

"I know what you’re thinking – what on earth is wrong? Well, nothing on earth is wrong; not yet I presume. It’s space. There’s nothing out here."


" ….. the phrase ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ was often spoken by Basil Rathbone and others of his ilk. However, nowhere in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books does Sherlock Holmes utter those words …..

….. when you see red, or feel a cool breeze on your face, do you see and feel what I would in your place? Whose perception of red is the real one, and who can say with authority what a cool breeze feels like? Perchance one of us would wake one day as if from a dream and behold for the first time the ‘true’ hues of a rainbow ….."


"I’ll keep this brief, and then you can decide what finally goes out, although I imagine that places an even greater burden on you. By the time you receive this message we’ll almost be back in lunar orbit.

The new drive works perfectly, problem is, there’s nowhere to go. One day out under tachyon power and all the ‘lights’ ahead of us went out. Literally. All at once. No stars, nothing. All our instruments confirmed this – one second, Alpha Centauri and other stars in our direct path were blue-shifting. The next, nothing. At first, unlikely as it was, we thought that we must have encountered some pocket of interstellar gas such as a dark nebula or a Bok globule. But the collision alarm hadn’t sounded and our active senses didn’t show any gas returns. Anyway, there was really no place known where any gas of sufficient quantity to block out starlight could have come from. After all, we were still in Sol’s backyard, and the presence of such a dark nebula so close to home would surely have been charted years before…

You can’t stop any ship – let alone an FTL – on a dime, and if we had have encountered an unknown pocket of dense interstellar gas, light emitted from our own sun should have undergone increased red-shift due to interstellar reddening. But there was no additional shift in the visual spectra, and even as we eventually turned about and used the drive to bring us to a standstill, Sol’s radiance was undiminished. Nothing could have prepared us for this. A systems check of the microwave radar showed that it was functioning within normal parameters – hell, we were so concerned we even ejected one of our remote orbital sensor pods along our original path to check for a return. But not only did we get a return, we could see it on the view screen, as well as all the stars which had previously been in our wake.

By now, we were panicking, and decided to return home at maximum FTL speed. However, before a quarter of an hour had passed at maximum V, the ‘lights’ turned on again; we could see Alpha Centauri and all the other radiating stellar phenomena which had vanished only two hours before on our original outward journey. As we eventually realised, this time, the explanation was simple: we had caught up to the same last wavefront of radiation that we had seen before everything went black.

With no starlight or emissions of any wavelength there can be no astronavigation, so there was no point continuing on our original mission. But, scared as we were, we had travelled only a little under three light days from earth, and after a quick vote, the crew decided to map the wavefront instead of turning tail for Earth. When I think back now, perhaps we should have done just that – at least we would have been back home with friends and loved ones days before the truth engulfed us.

Before he killed himself two days ago, my science officer made some rough calculations and a few guesses and the resultant theory he proposed was even more startling. So much so that he couldn’t face it being proven true. By now we’ve mapped the entire circumference of the wavefront within the galactic plane, and it forms a perfect ellipse around Sol. Travelling on the outside of that front, looking away from our sun, there is nothing to see, even outside the galactic disk. No clusters, no far-flung spiral nebulae, nothing at all. Its as though a cosmic domino effect began to sweep across the universe billions of years ago, gradually sweeping up our own galaxy and blacking out stars – stilling their atomic furnaces and leaving dead chunks of matter in their wake. But that’s not the half of it; its all been done very orderly. Think about it, the wavefront perfectly encircles our sun, so all the other stars appear to go out at once, which means that while Alpha Centauri died only four years ago, most of the universe has been dead for thousands and billions of years. Since the dawn of mankind, we’ve been looking up at a cosmic graveyard.

The last starlight will reach the earth sometime around new year’s day 2011, depending which side of the dateline you’re on. Our guess is that this phenomenon will no doubt sweep up Sol in its path. Happy new year, Pal."

The image shrank to a line vertically, and then to a point horizontally and vanished. Somewhere in the back of my mind Shakespeare spoke of man strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage. But even that would be comparative justice, for mankind’s performance had been foreseen and reviewed by the harshest critic long before his stage entrance. Does God play dice? You decide. I’ve still got a half bottle of JD to finish.

"Consider this: the ancient Mayan civilisation constructed a stone calendar which spanned the centuries from 3113BC to 2011AD. The significance of these dates is not known …..".

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Shaun A. Saunders

Shaun A. Saunders is a 37 year old psychologist living in Newcastle Australia. He has published numerous stories in webzines and was inspired by an online course in astronomy from Swinburne University to write this science fiction.



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