Time Out

by

E. S. Strout



Black holes ainít so black.
Stephen W. Hawking

1.

"Have a seat, Colonel," Lieutenant General Jackson Shaw said. Shaw, Chief of Space Corps Special Operations, was a wiry black man with graying hair. He lit up an illegal Venezuelan cigar with a wooden kitchen match scratched on his thumbnail and took a deep drag.

Thirty-eight year old Astropilot Colonel Philip Evans, still clad in his FTL flight gear, flapped an ineffectual hand at the cloud of tobacco fumes drifting across Shawís desk. He stifled a sneeze. "Got your message, sir. Just finished postflight debriefing."

"I know. Lucky sonofabitch," the General said with a paternal wink as he scrolled data on his computer screen. "If I was thirty years younger Iíd have flown the da Vinci myself. What do you think?"

"Heck of a bird, General. Slight delay in inertial damper reaction on re-entry was the only glitch. Professor Lynch said sheíd fix it."

General Shawís widened in surprise. "Youíve met Dr. Lynch?"

"She was at the debriefing, sir."

A speculative frown from the General. "Reclusive lady. She avoids Department Head meetings and the press as though they were Ebola virus carriers. How do you rate?"

"She was envious, I think. Wanted to fly the prototype herself but had to be age forty-five at max. Sheís gotta be over sixty."

"Almost seventy. Tough lady. PhD and a Nobel Prize in physics," General Shaw said. "The da Vinciís gravity drive engine is her design. First faster than light spacecraft to be fitted for a manned crew."

Colonel Evans leaned forward on the desk, brushed a hand over his dark military brush cut. "General, Iíve read some of her astrophysics articles. Understood less than a tenth of them."

"Same with me, Colonel. Think youíd have any problems relating to another very intelligent female?"

A surprised blink of hazel irises. "I donít believe so, sir."

"Good. Stand by."

2.

A slim attractive woman with ash blond curls clinging tight to her scalp like a helmet eased the door open, gave Evans a noncommittal glance. "Is this my driver, General Shaw?"

The General leaned back, hands clasped behind his neck. "Colonel Philip Evans, may I introduce Mission Specialist and professor of astrophysics Susan Rundquist."

Evans stood, extended a hand. "Pleasure, Susan."

She returned a firm, cool grip. "Colonel."

Evans noted that Rundquist had chosen to address him by his rank rather than reciprocating his use of her given name. He wondered if she preferred to keep things as professional as possible -- or she really did think of him as just her 'driver'.

"Well met," General Shaw concluded. "Tomorrow 0900 hours. Conference Room Bravo, Admin Building. Be on time." He departed, trailing a pungent cloud of cigar smoke.

"Doesnít he know those things will kill him?" Susan gasped.

Evans grinned. Apparently Rundquist wasn't as stiff as her initial greeting had suggested. "Too old to change his ways, Professor," he said. "Heís aced every required physical exam. Pulmonary cancer antibody screens always come back negative. Space Corps medics gave given up on him."

"Hmph. Heíll most likely outlive both of us."

Colonel Evans tapped a finger on his wristwatch. "Itís 1730 hours, Susan," he said, watching her face for signs of irritation at his use of her first name. Finding none, he continued, "Happy hour at the Officers Club. Iím buying."

Rundquist gave him a half-lidded glance and a thin smile. "I could handle a Coors. Maybe two."

Sincere chuckle from the Colonel. "Iím a Bud man myself. You could be my kind of partner."

A skeptical squint. "Perhaps. I understand youíre a better than average spacecraft pilot."

He nodded. "Over ten thousand hours outside Earthís gravitational pull. Command pilot for the first Mars landing."

Another tiny smile. "I knew that."

"You married, Susan?"

"Divorced."

"Me too. Side effect of the job."

A nod of affirmation. "Makes two of us. You got any kids, Colonel?"

"A son, Jeff. Plebe at Annapolis. You?"

"One daughter. Michelleís a freshman at Stanford."

"So whatís going down, Prof?"

A secretive smile. "Tomorrow."

"Letís go get those brewskis."

3.

0905 hours:

"Youíre late," General Shaw admonished. "Susan beat you by six minutes. Understand you guys tipped a few last night. Youíve got a tad of conjunctival congestion there, Colonel Evans."

Susan gave him a quick wink and handed him a vial of Visine. "This will help, Phil."

He gave her a tired smile. "Thanks. Four cups of black coffee helped a little. You look pretty bright eyed, Prof."

A faint grin. "My cure is a liter of Arrowhead Spring Water and six Extra Strength Tylenols."

"Enough commiseration," the General grumbled. "You may begin, Professor."

Dr. Rundquist clicked a remote. An arc of dusty silver split the stygian blackness of the wall-sized screen behind the conference table. "Recognize this, Colonel?"

"Part of itís a star map," he said. "Celestial North Pole. Polaris, Ursa Major and Minor. The area behind that curve of particles is a blank. No stars. It doesnít fit."

"Real time tachyon-enhanced image from the Hubble II orbital telescope. Twenty-six thousand light years distant. Ring any bells?" Susan asked.

A head shake of frustration. "Not a clue, Prof."

"The Sagittarius-A star anomaly, Colonel. A singularity, or black hole if you prefer. It makes its home at the center of our galaxy."

"Wait one," Evans insisted. "Youíre telling me black holes are invisible?"

"Colonel," Shaw chided. "Please donít interrupt."

Dr. Rundquist held up a hand in a pacifying gesture. "Colonel Evans is right in a way, General. We donít actually visualize black holes. We learn of their presence by effects on their surroundings."

She lasered the screen again. "This arc of glowing gases and particulate dust is the accretion disc. It delineates the boundary of the aberrationís event horizon. Nothing crossing that boundary can escape the gravitational pull. Not even light."

She tapped another remote stud. "The following is a transmission from an unmanned probe powered by a third generation Westinghouse cold fusion drive. Sag-A in person."

The starless aberration filled the screen, encircled by the accretion disc. Susan pointed. "Thatís not all. Something is different here."

Evans approached the screen, squinted, shrugged. "What am I missing?"

4.

"Itís okay, Colonel. I missed it at first also." Rundquist coiled tangled curls around an index finger, lips pursed in concentration. "Something quite unusual."

"Show the Colonel what you showed me." General Shaw requested.

She clicked the remote again. "This was captured just before the probe was devoured by Sag-Aís gravitational pull." A faint sinuous distortion appeared peripheral to the accretion disc as Susan enhanced the image. It faded and reappeared at regular intervals. "Itís pulsating."

"I agree, " Colonel Evans said, his voice hushed with wonder. "What the hell is it?"

"A disruption in normal space caused by proximity to the singularity. I believe space has become folded at this point. The pulsation represents a wormhole. Itís circling the anomaly in a stable orbit. Iím sure of it now."

Evans swallowed two Tylenols with a swig of tepid coffee. "Where are you going with this, Prof?"

She tapped the remote. Complex equations and graphs scrolled down the screen. "Data from the probe combined with what we know from similar anomalies weíve investigated. They suggest that a spacecraft entering such a wormhole might attain faster than light speeds far in excess of the da Vinciís capability."

A soft snicker by Astropilot Evans. "Like warp-ten in the old classic Star Trek movie chips? Youíre putting me on."

Deep sigh, impatient tattoo of black high-heeled pumps on the tile deck. "Iím not indulging in humor, Colonel Evans," she said, her cheeks radiating a rosy blush.

"Ignore our spacecraft driverís lack of mathematical skills, Professor Rundquist," General Shaw said as he crushed his cigar butt out in an overflowing green glass ashtray. "Give him the bottom line."

5.

She sat next to Evans, her face inches from his. Her voice was aflame with conviction, her electric blue irises riveting with intensity. "Whereís your sense of adventure, Phil? Imagine reaching the rim of the universe. The ultimate pursuit. Another Medal of Valor to pin on your chest."

"And for you, Professor?"

She took a deep tremulous breath, did a slow exhale. "The chance for proof after six years of grinding out volumes of theory." A faraway gaze and smile. "The siren song of the unknown. And the search for the Holy Grail of astrophysics."

"What does Dr. Lynch think?" General Shaw asked.

"Hypothetical possibility, she said. Otherwise wouldnít commit. I think she was fascinated by the idea."

"Right," Evans snorted. "Long as itís not her ass with us on the da Vinci."

"She volunteered, Phil," Susan huffed. "Medical shot her down. Her age and a cardiac arrhythmia. We owe her one."

"Suppose we accept this mission, Prof," he responded. "Uncharted territory, different sets of celestial parameters. How do we get back?"

"Our NAV computer is state of the art technology with accurate predictive capability. It will recall our exact course coordinates and return us to Delta Echo Station, planet Earth." She unfolded a precisely notated star chart printout, traced a sinuous course through myriads of constellations with a clear-polished fingertip. "This is our route to Sagittarius-A."

Evans leaned back, hands behind his neck. Cervical vertebrae gave gratifying pops as he rotated his head to the sides and back. "Iím seeing a lot of ifs here. Gazillions of miles of uncharted space. Folded space. Wormholes. What if the universe is steady state? Eternal, not finite? We could be on an endless journey to nowhere."

"A lot of bigger brains than ours would be back to square one. Galileo, Einstein, Hawking and our shipís namesake as well." She clasped her hands together in an attitude of prayer. "Chance of a lifetime, Colonel. We can be the first. What do you say?"

Evans closed his eyes, took several deep breaths, blinked, nodded. "What the hell. Letís go get a beer."

A knowing smile broke across Shawís face. "Next launch window is in forty-four hours. Iíll be there to see you off."

6.

Thirty-six hours post launch (estimated):

Evans peered through the da Vinciís forward viewport, blinking in confusion. "Where are the stars, Susan?"

Professor Rundquist stared. The blackness was total, all-encompassing. It pressed at the tiny aperture, held at bay only by the tenuous red glow of the cockpitís instrument panel. She unfolded a star chart, held it up to the faint light, gave a sigh of frustration. "Damn. Where indeed?"

Evans jiggled a switch. "No external navigation lights." He grabbed a flashlight from his utility pack and aimed it outside. The beam halted at the plastiglass port, absorbed.

"Weird. Have we cleared the wormhole?"

Dr. Rundquist scanned the instrument console, disbelief etched on her face. "Unknown. Iíve got no data input. Look here." The time-date chronometer blinked 00.00. "It wonít reset."

Evans tried. "Itís frozen."

"My wristwatch reads zeroes also," Susan said, tapping its dial with a fingertip. "Nothing."

"Mine too," Evans agreed.

Rundquist tried again to punch up FTL data. "Damn. NAV computer screenís frozen too. Wonít reboot."

"You mean our road map is gone? Let me try."

His efforts were futile as well. Overrides were unresponsive. Subspace COMM frequencies were silent, and the emergency beacon release mechanism failed.

"Its gotta be distortion of your wormhole, Susan. The NAV computerís flight program must be complete. Inertial dampers have shut down and weíve got artificial gravity."

Rundquist chewed her lower lip. "All the backup systems are off-line. And listen ..."

"I donít hear anything."

"Me neither. Thereís no elemental particle hiss from the shields. The slingshot effect around Sagittarius-A should have more than tripled our speed across the fold in space." She tapped a fingernail on the digital velocity display. "Zero. Weíre not moving at all."

7.

"Sublight engines." Evans punched SOLID PROPELLANT START. No response. "Damn."

He popped an access panel, pulled the manual start lever. Nothing. He pounded the console with a fist. "Weíve been sucked through Sag-Aís event horizon, Susan. We canít escape. The gravity ..."

"Come on, Phil, weíd be shredded into spaghetti by now. Weíre somewhere else."

Evansís voice oozed cynicism. "Slingshot acceleration around a black hole through an allegedly stable wormhole. Billions of light-years in an eyeblink. Explore vast uncharted areas of folded space. And what did we get, Susan? Lost, thatís what."

"We knew the risks when we volunteered, Colonel. There had to be a malfunction."

"The computer should have aborted the FTL program."

She took a deep breath, exhaled through pursed lips. "There must have been a minuscule fluctuation in the event horizonís attraction. Too small for the external microsensors to pick up in time to cancel."

"So where are we?"

"Not where, Phil. When."

Rivulets of sweat streaked the Astropilotís face. "What in hell does that mean?"

"The space-time continuumís been compromised. The sudden wormhole displacement has caused a major temporal and spatial shift."

"Dammit, Prof. Give me the English translation."

"I think weíve become unstuck in time."

A huff of exasperation. "Thatís more Star Trek, Susan."

"Stephen Hawking predicted that when collapsing matter at the core of a black hole reached a state of zero volume, a singularity would be created. Infinite curvature of the space-time continuum would occur. Time would cease to exist as we know it. And we were close enough to the anomaly to be affected ..."

"Theory, Susan. Thereís gotta be a rational explanation."

"Listen to me, Phil," she pleaded. "Nothingís working. NAV computer frozen. Chronometers pegged at zero. Light not acting normal. Weíre not in the wormhole. The shift. Random fast-forward or reverse through time."

"Okay. So when are we?"

"Einstein and Hawking might know. I can only speculate." Her face was ashen in the dim emergency lighting. Beads of sweat decorated her brow. "If we shifted forward weíd still see star fields and weíd have some big numbers on the NAV computer and chronometer readouts. So itís gotta be back."

"Come on, Susan, give me numbers. Youíre the PhD."

"Fifteen, twenty billion years, give or take a billion or two. Before the Great Big-Bang Singularity."

Colonel Evans gnawed a thumbnail. "If thatís true, then why do we still exist? I mean weíre breathing, conversing ..."

"I can only give you theory, Phil," Rundquist said. "I still believe in a finite universe. My Grail. I think that our mass -- the ship and everything in it -- has generated a sort of bubble of what we would consider 'normal' space-time. It could be inside the Prime Singularity -- must be, really, because there is no outside. But a bubble like that would be small -- and with no -- no anything to interact with it -- it probably wouldn't last long. On the plus side, I imagine that if time stops for us, we'll never know it."

"Huh. Funny that us flesh and blood types can function, but all the electronics and optronics are down," Evans said. "Something to do with consciousness? Nah, too metaphysical. Maybe all the gear got EMP'd to death by the wormhole." He glanced at the multi-function display panel -- aside from the time index, it was blank. "Too bad our external digital cameras are off line," he remarked. "Professor Lynch is gonna be pissed thereís no videochip -- assuming, of course, that we ever get home."

There was a sudden flash of blinding orange-white light outside the viewport where only total blackness had existed an instant before. Colonel Evans flipped his polarized visor down, turned to his partner with a gaze of fearful amazement. "Oh wow! I apologize, Susan . . ."

There was a tiny sound, echoing like a cannon shot in the confined cockpit space.

The time-date chronometer clicked to 00:01 ...

THE END



© 2005 by E. S. Strout, M.D.

Bio: E. S. Strout (M.D.), a.k.a. Gene or Gino, has had stories in Planet Magazine, Anotherealm, Millennium F&SF, Beyond-sf and Jackhammer (Eggplant Productions) as well as in Aphelion (most recently Field Trip, June 2005).

E-mail: E. S. Strout

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Lettercol
Or Return to Aphelion's Index page.