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By Joseph Madden
As its umbilicals disconnected with a jolt, the prototype hyperspace starship Yeager dropped away from the support tender and floated free in space.
At the controls, Major Christi Thom surveyed her readouts. “All systems showing green,” she reported. “Everything looks good from this end, Control.”
“We copy that, Major,” The controller aboard McKinley Station replied. “You are go for pre-test maneuvers.”
“Roger that.” She threw a wave out her cockpit window at McKinley: a wasted gesture, since McKinley was three kilometers distant, but it was part of her routine.
Another voice cut in on her helmet speaker. “Godspeed, Christi. See you when you get home. First round is on me.” This was Jim Matthews, pilot of Yeager’s support tender. The tender ship continued to fill the view above her as it began to move away.
“Thanks, Jim,” Christi smiled. “And thanks for the vote of confidence.”
She was truly grateful for that. Her historic first flight was actually the third attempt at a manned faster-than-light spaceflight. The initial unmanned flights had gone off without incident, flying out from Earth to Saturn in a matter of minutes. Enthusiasm ran high for a future of interstellar spaceflight.
The phrase “Man plans and God laughs” once again held true. Man’s great plans were dashed the moment a live pilot was placed inside the cockpit. XP-1 exploded as soon as its faster-than-light engines—dubbed the “Wormhole drive”— were brought online. Little more than dust remained of the ship and its pilot.
Eighteen months and another successful unmanned test flight later, XP-2 was launched. This time the flight looked to be a success, until the time came for the ship to revert to normal space. XP-2 dropped out of hyperspace, and promptly tore itself apart.
That had been two years ago. Christi had trained for XP-2 with pilot Bill Chiang and was to be his backup should he become incapacitated. What still gave her nightmares wasn’t the fact that she could have been the one killed, or that Bill’s body had never been recovered. It was the fact that pilots who ran shuttles to and from the mining colonies on Saturn’s moons reported that they could still hear his screams over their comm units months after the incident.
On the eve of his flight, a reporter interviewing Bill had asked him why a husband and father of four would attempt such a risky endeavor. Bill had replied in his usual to-the-point style.
“Risk is inconsequential. Each and every one of us is at risk every moment of our lives. You could step outside your home and get struck by lightning, or slip and break your neck in the shower. The only reason people take note of the risks on a mission like this is because it’s big news to everyone watching. Risk is all around us. The only time you’re truly safe is when you’re dead.
“Without risk, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The first life on Earth took the risk of venturing from the oceans to try life on land. Columbus risked disaster by crossing the Atlantic to the Americas. Armstrong risked leaving the safety of his lunar lander to walk on the moon. The risk we take with this mission, whether successful or not, will propel us, even marginally, toward the next stage of our evolution as a race.
“Without risk,” Bill summed up, “we wouldn’t even exist. So there’s no point in worrying about the risk. It’s always been there. We just have to face it.”
By the next afternoon, Bill would be dead, and the program, already teetering on the brink of being discontinued, was put on hold once more. More unmanned flights were run, all successful, with only minor glitches. Despite much controversy, construction had begun on the third, manned hyperspace ship. And Christi had been chosen as pilot.
And so now she sat in the cockpit of XP-3, waiting to face the risk. She had christened the ship the Yeager, thinking that using a real name, other than the ship’s technical designation, might bring her a touch more luck. In her younger years, Chuck Yeager had been her idol, and the reason she had become a test pilot in the first place. Inwardly she wondered if years from now, she might serve as the inspiration for future generations of space explorers.
As the countdown continued, she ran through her pre-flight checklist for the umpteenth time since she had climbed aboard. That damned fuel monitor light was still glowing red and she tapped it several times with her finger until it reverted to normal. “State of the art,” she mumbled aloud.
Her eyes fell upon the lenticular photo of her husband Graham and their four year old son Benjamin that she had wedged onto the instrument panel. Her checklist momentarily forgotten, Christi gazed into her son’s coffee brown eyes and had a flash of honest fear. The thought that something could go wrong and Benny would be left motherless was so great at that moment, she seriously thought of aborting the mission. To Hell with science, she thought. To Hell with knowledge and expanding human boundaries. I want to play ball with my boy.
“T-minus ninety seconds,” the voice of the controller aboard McKinley Station startled Christi from her inner ranting.
“Confirm, Control,” she replied, her voice shaky with the sudden surprise.
Despite her misgivings, she was still surprised to find her hands shaking as he brought the Wormhole Drive online, and knew it was not from the vibration of the engines. Closing her eyes, Christi drew in a deep breath. When she released it, her hands were steady once more.
The controller aboard McKinley called off the sixty-second mark. Christi’s hand unconsciously went to the crucifix she wore around her neck; the one Graham had given to her on their first anniversary. Though her flight suit and gloves blocked her from actually touching it, the pressure of it pressing against her breastbone was reassuring and gave her some degree of comfort.
At thirty seconds, the slightest tremors of panic began to set in, like the feeling of being aboard one of those old-style wooden roller coasters just as it was about to crest the top of the highest drop. This was no roller coaster; it was the real deal, and the adrenaline rush was unlike anything Christi had ever felt before. Her hands were tingling, and she could actually hear the blood rushing through her veins. She didn’t know if she would break out in giddy, hysterical laughter or begin sobbing uncontrollably.
“Fifteen seconds,” A new voice came through the speakers. It was the Wormhole project director, Samantha Dovonovich, the woman who had developed the Wormhole Drive. Christi had expected to hear from her. There was no way Sami Dovonovich would let this moment go by without saying something quotable for the history books. “Good luck and Godspeed, Major Christi Thom.”
Christi had hoped she would say something different. Sami had said those same words to the last two pilots just before their missions went awry. It was like a bad omen.
Ten seconds. I shouldn’t have eaten breakfast. Christi mentally ticked off with the countdown clock. As it struck one, she heard herself, as if from a great distance, whisper “No, wait!” Then the universe exploded around her.
Not in the literal sense, of course. The flash from the Wormhole Drive was blinding, even through the polarized cockpit windows. The ship bucked, Christi was jammed back into her seat, and the stars went from pinpricks to elongated shafts, which then transformed into a swirling vortex of light. The “wormhole” had opened.
The sensation was dazzling. The vortex changed through every color of the spectrum before it collapsed inward on itself, the starlines flattening into a single horizontal shaft of light before exploding again into the vortex.
Christi glanced at the ship’s chronometer. She was already one minute into what was to be a five minute voyage. All control lights showed green. Thus far, this test was more of a success than the two previous flights. Please, please let this be the one where everything goes right.
Then something through the viewshield caught her attention. It was a light, brighter than the starshafts surrounding her ship. It was softly strobing, or was it spinning? Then a too familiar thought piqued in her mind.
The light at the end of the tunnel. The one that calls you to Heaven.
Panic began to engulf her as the light grew larger as the Yeager closed in on it. She stabbed a finger at the abort switch, found it inoperative. Grabbing the control yoke, she gave it a sharp jerk back in her direction, realizing full well that performing such a maneuver could result in the Yeager destroying itself, much as Bill Chiang’s ship had.
Christi did not care. Every fiber of her being screamed at her not to enter into that softly beckoning light.
Her concern was futile. The control yoke responded exactly as the abort switch had. Absolutely no response.
The light was so close now that it completely filled her cockpit windows. A final image flashed through her mind, that of little Benny standing next to her empty, flag-draped casket as it was lowered into a false grave.
I’m so sorry, Baby, she called out to him across the universe as the light engulfed her, sweeping away Yeager’s cockpit. She shut her eyes, and gave herself over to it.
Her eyes opened once again, and when they focused, Yeager’s cockpit had disappeared. She was floating free of restraints, surrounded by a surreal pearlescent mist, intensely bright, yet not blinding. There was no sensation of direction or movement; no sense of up or down. She imagined the sensation was akin to that of a feather set adrift in the middle of a cloud.
Yep. I’m dead, she thought.
“No, you’re not dead, Major,” a voice replied, proceeding to answer her next, unspoken question. “And no, this is not Heaven. You are very much alive.”
Christi’s sense of direction was still askew. She had no way of telling where the voice had come from. There was a vaguely familiar tonality to the voice, and something told her she knew it from somewhere, but it was different enough that she could not nail down a definite face with it.
“Who’s there?” she called. “Who are you?”
“Our true name would be quite unpronounceable to you,” the voice came back. “In the interest of keeping things simple, you may call us Watchers.”
“And you’ve been watching . . . me?” Christi asked, confused. She had a vaguely creepy feeling up and down her spine, like someone was watching her in the shower.
The voice sounded amused. “We have been watching your people. A most interesting race, you humans are. No matter what system you are from, you all develop along the same lines.”
Christi’s head was swimming. “Are you saying that there are other humans out there already? On other worlds?”
When it replied, the Watcher’s voice sounded as surprised as her own. “Of course. There are billions of you out there, scattered like stars across the cosmos. Quite a tenacious race. You all seem to thrive on adversity. No matter how great the setback you always continue to push ever onward.”
At this, a thought occurred to her, and again the Watcher answered before she could give voice to the question. “No, we are not responsible for the loss of your other two craft. As our name implies, we merely observe. We take no action, directly or indirectly. It would be vain of us to think we have a right to interfere in another race’s destiny. Your mistakes are yours to make freely, otherwise you could never truly mature as a race.”
The voice altered, became more familiar now. “The risk we take with this mission, whether successful or not, will propel us, even marginally, toward the next stage of our evolution as a race.”
A figure came into view through the mists, spectral at first, then, like the voice, became much more familiar. “Without risk,” Bill Chiang said as he faced Christi, “we wouldn’t even exist. So there’s no point in worrying about the risk. It’s always been there. We just have to face it.”
“Such wise words,” the Bill simulacrum added after a pause, “and so true. Your people have risked much.”
Christi saw images begin to flash in the mists all around them. Columbus’ ships crossing the Atlantic. Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight. Yeager’s Glamorous Glennis breaking the sound barrier. Armstrong stepping onto the moon.
She saw her ship as it entered hyperspace.
“And there is much more risk ahead. We see great triumphs for your people, but also great tragedy.”
More images flashed, less familiar to her now. Christi saw more starships, far larger than hers voyaging through space, their crews making contact with other races. Colonies being established on unfamiliar worlds.
A singular image caught her attention. A planet in flames. Was it Earth? The image passed too quickly, replaced by a blazing battle in space; massive starships exchanging fire with one another. Humans and alien beings fighting and dying.
“But always will you persevere.”
The first images returned, of starships of all designs leaping into hyperspace, flinging themselves far into the void.
Christi turned back to the simulation of Bill Chiang. “So it is worth the risk.”
Chiang smiled. “Now our time here is done.”
He turned as if to leave. Christi reached for his arm, her hand passing through it. “Wait,” she cried, “Is that all?”
Another smile. “We have watched you long enough. It is time for us to move on, to begin watching other, less advanced civilizations. We are pleased with your progress.”
“But I have so many questions,”
“And you will have to find the answers on your own.”
The image of Bill Chiang flickered, going out of focus, morphing. The next form the Watcher took was known to her as well, but it was not of any being she knew from experience. The gray skin. Large, dark, expressionless eyes. Skeletal limbs. Christi had seen beings like this before, in science fiction movies, on television documentaries.
In her dreams.
Now she felt the voice more than heard it. Farewell Major Christi Thom. We shall not meet again.
The Watcher disappeared in a brilliant flash of light and Christi shut her eyes against the glare.
When the flash spots had cleared from her vision, Christi found herself back inside Yeager’s cockpit. The Wormhole Drive had shut down automatically as it had been programmed to, and she could see Saturn out her port window, its rings reflecting the faint light of the far off sun. All the interior monitors were glowing their tranquil green. The test had been successful.
According to the countdown clock, only four minutes and forty five seconds had elapsed since she had blacked out. No, that’s not right. It wasn’t a blackout. It was. . .
It had to be a dream, Christi shook her head to clear away the cobwebs.
The motion made her realize that her headset had somehow slipped off and she quickly repositioned it. The McKinley controller was all but shouting through the earpiece. “Major Thom? Can your hear me? Can you hear me, Major Thom?”
Christi’s throat was suddenly dry as she croaked a response. “McKinley station, this is the Yeager. Happy to report that ship and pilot are doing fine.”
The resultant shouts of joy coming over the headset nearly deafened her, and she scrambled to pull the unit off again. As she did, she caught a glimmer of movement out of the corner of her eye. At first she thought it was her imagination – that her eyes were playing tricks on her as some residual effect of the hyperspace jump – but as she turned to look, she saw it was definitely something more than space dust.
It was a ship, kilometers distant, but still visible enough to be made out by the naked eye. It was an elongated disc, spinning slowly, and moving steadily away. It accelerated suddenly, lights flickering off, then back on briefly before streaking off into the void.
A galactic wink of the eye? Christi wondered, smiling inwardly at the notion. So I didn’t dream the whole thing.
She replaced her headset again. The ruckus on the other end had died down. “Major Thom,” McKinley control was saying. “We read you as go for the return flight. Do you concur?”
Christi paused before replying, gazing out the window to where she had last seen the Watcher ship. She winked back.
“Affirmative, McKinley station,” Major Christi Thom replied as she turned her ship onto its return vector. “I’m coming home.”