The Explorer Program

The Explorer class ships were the pinnacle of space travel. Twenty years earlier, the space-warp drive made inter-solar distances trivial. We sent missions to Mars, to Jupiter’s moons, to Venus; we even visited Pluto. The Solar System was all within our reach. Then we reached further.

The Explorer Ships weren’t going out a mere ten or twenty light years. The nearest target was four hundred and fifty-six light years away. Rough estimates were the ship would arrive after twelve to fifteen years Earth relative time and crew would experience a few weeks. The exact formula to determine time dilation was variable based on gravity waves and dark-matter density.

The program was conceived as a three-year mission to catalog and explore exoplanets. Explorer ships would be sent out on spiraling paths to explore star systems we could only dream of seeing before. Three years for the crews of the ships. Relative Earth time would be a couple of centuries, still far less than the few millennia it would take with only light speed travel.

When we sent probes to nearby stars with our new space-warp drive we encountered a limitation. The first probe went to a star ten light years away and arrived within a few days. It would take a decade for the probe to transmit any data it collected back to Earth. The obvious fix was to simply have the probe return to the Solar System before transmitting its data. However, having the Explorer Ships return after every star system they explored would hobble the program; at least doubling Relative Earth Time for the crews.

The Explorer Program was stalled until there was a breakthrough. Using a modified space-warp drive we figured out how to pinch two tiny points of space together and transmit across the bridge. It required a sender and receiver to make the connection but once made communication was instantaneous. The program went forward and within seven years the first exploration reports of planets hundreds of light-years away were received. It was the golden age of interstellar exploration.

Then the decline of Earth began.

I was born at the right time to explore the universe. Twenty years later and I might never have made it off the planet or been shuffled to a random colony. Twenty years earlier and I might have been too old for the program or had a family. By the time I had completed my training, the first ten Explorer ships had launched. I left Earth on the fourteenth ship.

We arrived at our third star system and could not initiate contact with Earth. Several hundred light years and twenty-eight years from Earth, we were suddenly cast adrift. For two days we sent the carrier wave, sitting in shifts at the comms panel, waiting for the returning gravimetric pulse to fold space and a human voice to speak to us. The commander decided to make a short five light year jaunt out of the system we were in. This had the benefit of passing a few months of Earth Relative time in minutes for us. This time Earth connected

The Earth Space Agency had been an international organization since before my birth but some legacy facilities had been in use from their NASA days. When the second nuclear missile hit East Texas, the main communication hub was lost. No one knew who had launched the first missiles but the U.S., Russia, China, and France had launched retaliatory strikes at their best guesses.

The Explorer communication outage had lasted several months while the political situation threatened to boil over into a full-scale nuclear war. We never got the full story of who talked who down but a shaky peace was enacted. We returned to the system we had just left and carried out a standard planet survey and a surface survey on a semi-habitable planet. The air was thin but breathable, liquid water on the surface, simple-celled photosynthetic organisms similar to algae.

Two months later of our time, we arrived at the next star system and learned human life on Earth was becoming unsubstantial. The nuclear exchange of a decade ago had accelerated global temperature increases. Within a century humanity would be struggling to survive.
Escaping to the few outposts and colonies on other planets and moons within the solar system was not a sustainable option. Despite several being economically stable, most relied on the Earth for manufactured goods and a portion of their food. Humanity needed to evacuate as many people as possible to exoplanets that could support Earth life. The Explorer Program was retasked with finding planets to send colony ships to.

The crews of the Explorer ships hadn’t expected to return to an Earth they would recognize and now we didn’t expect to return at all. By the time our mission ended, Earth would be abandoned and the worlds we discovered would be home to new branches of humanity.

A Land of Shadow and Substance

lander-icon

The lander contacted the planet with a solid thump. The foggy atmosphere was blown around by the lander’s jets but quickly returned obscuring its cameras. A ladder lowered on one side from a hatch to the ground. Inside the three astronauts puzzled over the atmospheric readings the lander’s computers were displaying.

“There can’t be breathable air out there!” the science officer, Alice Henson, insisted.

“I know logically there can’t be air out there but can all the sensors be wrong?” the captain, Greg Mason, asked.

“If they were malfunctioning, the readings would be all over the place, not consistent like these readings,” the engineer, Jamie Hertz, said.

“Even if we believe the sensors we can not exit the lander without environmental suits,” Alice said.

“Of course not. We’re on an alien planet with unknown biological elements,” the Captain said. “We’ll follow protocol.” An hour later the three had helped each other squeeze into and seal their environment suits. After double-checking their suits, they were ready to begin their survey of the surface.

Captain Greg was the first one down the ladder. He had no quippy sound bites for the moment he first set foot on the alien planet. Alice and Jamie followed soon after. Jamie removed a device from her belt and waved a wand connected by a rubber tube through the foggy air.

“I’m getting the same readings as the lander. There’s a slight spike of xenon in the atmosphere but otherwise it’s Earth normal,” she said.

“Huh,” the Captain grunted. “We’ll keep our helmets on just in case.”

Alice pointed another device at the sky and pressed a button. “This isn’t right. The light from the sun should be much further into the red spectrum,” she said.

“Could the atmosphere be filtering the sun’s light?” Jamie asked.

“Not to this extent.”

“We’re not going to figure this out standing around the lander,” Greg said. “Let’s hook up and head out.” Alice attached a tether from her suit to Greg’s suit. Jamie did the same to Alice’s suit and attached a wire reel from her belt to the lander. The team began hiking through the dense fog away from the lander.

Three hundred feet from the lander, they found a paved road running perpendicular to their course.

“What do you think?” Greg asked the other two.

“It’s not impossible for an alien culture to create familiar looking artifacts. A road is a road no matter what planet you’re on,” Jamie said.

“We’re likely to find more alien structures if we follow the road,” Alice said.

“Sounds good. For safety, we’ll walk beside it agreed?” The other two nodded in their helmets. Several minutes later they spotted a house with a white picket fence on the side of the road. A man, a human man, stepped off the porch and walked to the fence. He raised his hand in greeting.

“Howdy folks. Are you passing through are planning on staying longer?”

“Captain, this appears to be my great-grandfather,” Jamie said. “I think we’ve landed on an alien metaphysical representation of the afterlife.”

“Another one? Ok, people back to the lander.” The team turned around and began following the wire back to the lander.

“Sorry Gramps, we’re looking for actual alien planets to explore.”

“That’s too bad. I’ll tell Meemaw you stopped by,” the apparition of Jamie’s great-grandfather said. Jamie watched him wave until he and the house disappeared back into the fog behind them.

A Daring Escape

She hid her spaceship at the bottom of the ocean. Flew it straight down, opened all the hatches, and flooded it. She swam to shore and stripped off her silver environmental suit; letting it dissolve into the sand. Several hundred hitchhiked miles later, she found a job and a home. For a few years she lived like a human; the happiest time of her life. She waited tables in a bar, bowled with her friends, ran in the park with her dog.

Then they came. A swarm of alien invaders intent on death and destruction. Cities burned and crumbled. Militaries around the world failed to repel them. People huddled together whispering goodbyes to each other. But the end did not come. Reports of a new alien ship began to spread; a silver bird, swooping through the invaders and destroying them.

She had never been far from the ship’s thoughts. Even drowned in the ocean, it had felt the link like a constant buzz in a quiet room. So when she called for it from the depths where she had hidden it, buried it, discarded it, it came. Together they fought and won while surprise was on their side but the sheer number of enemies was too great for one ship.

With no other options left she sent a message out to deep space, “Help me save this planet!” she continued her defense waiting and hoping for a response. Flocks of silver ships fell out of hyperspace and began slashing through the invaders. Soon the invaders fled chased by a contingent of silver ships that would ensure they were destroyed to their last.

Through her link to the ship, she received a message, an order, and a threat, “Princess, the Empire is overjoyed at hearing you are well and alive. Please dock with the flagship. By order of the Empire, we will raze this planet if you do not come with us.” She looked once more at the planet she had begun to think of as home and turned toward the flagship. The Earth was saved.

On Earth, her friends searched for her but would never find her. They mourned her and one took in her dog. A galaxy away, the princess planned another daring escape.

Colony Constructors

During my last trip through the dark, I was paired with the newest recruit for the second shift. Second shift is the boring middle months after the ship has left one system but before it reaches the next. There were other crew members out of cryro at the time but the foreman had asked me to mentor Joanne on the ship systems.

After five minutes of watching numbers on display screens, I asked her a question, “So, why did you join this mission?”

She looked out the viewport at the stars and said, “I wanted to explore a new world.”

I laughed, “You do know new planets are mapped and explored by satellites and rovers, right?”

“Yeah, but is it really explored if no humans have been there before?”

“Yes. It doesn’t matter if I see a rock or if a robot sees it. It’s been seen. Anyways we aren’t an exploration mission. There aren’t any manned exploration missions.”

Joanne sighed, “I know. This mission was the closest I could find.”

“You’re not going to have a lot of time to ‘explore’.” I counted off items on my fingers. “We have ten habs, fifteen farms, ten labs, and six storage buildings to set up before the colonists arrive. And then the real work of getting the colony running starts.”

“Still we get to be the first people on a new world. That’s still something.”

I couldn’t help smiling. “I wish I had half your spirit.”

“Why did you sign up for this mission then?”

“Same reason I signed up for the last ten colony missions: I wanted to build something.”

“You never wanted to settle down, have kids?”

“Thought about it but I wanted to travel and Colony Constructor is strictly a single person’s job. Children were straight out of the picture.”

She pointed an excited finger at me. “Ah! So, you do have some of the explorer spirit in you.”

“Maybe a little but after you see a few planets it starts to wan. We go where life is possible, which means Earth-like planets, which means they all kind of look the same.”

“There’s still some stuff to discover on these planets,” she countered.

“Yeah, but we don’t get to stick around to discover it. If you really want to pioneer a new world, you should have applied for immigration and joined a colony.”

“I might do that someday but first I want to see a few planets first.”

“Don’t wait too long or you’ll end up like me,” I warned her.

“You’re not that old.”

“Physically I’m only old enough to be your aunt but relativistic time dilation means I’ve outlived everyone I knew on earth.” I paused thinking about the distant family members that were still on earth that I barely knew. “This is my last mission. I’m staying this time.”

“What are you going to do?” Joanne asked.

“I’m going to build something new.

Space Spies

The ceiling spins overhead. They’ve given her too much of whatever drug they are using these days to loosen the lips of enemy spies. She’s too disorientated to understand their questions but still, they ask. “Who gives you orders? What was your last mission? How many targets have you eliminated? What is the launch capability of your nation? How many space capable landers do you have?”

After three hours, she the drug begins to lose its effect and starts to answer their questions by narrating her life’s story. I was born to poor farmers in the eastern providence. “When I was ten I skinned my leg riding down a hill on a sled. At twelve, I was advanced two grades and then another three a week later. I was disappeared from my family when I was fourteen. I saw the curvature of our world from space at seventeen.” Another two hours pass in this way, the two conversations fighting for volume.

Then she gets one hand free from her restraints. In the struggle to re-secure her, a guard loses his gun. The lights explode and darkness buries the room. The door cracks open. Two shots force it closed.

“When I was eighteen, I ‘joined’ the program. I was the best shot in my class with the highest marks for accuracy. I’ve killed for my ‘homeland’. For my people. For a cause that I believed in. I killed to escape all of it. I’m here to defect, which I would have told you if you hadn’t drugged me.” The gun drops to the ground. “Can I get some coffee?”

***

Five years earlier, she sits in a ruined sanctuary, turned by the war into just another abandoned building among a city of abandoned buildings. The sanctuary was abandoned before the city. The regime had no need for a higher power. The altar is gone. The symbols are stripped from the walls. The pews trashed for firewood. The chair for the orator remains. She sits in it gazing at the pendant on her necklace, a symbol of a faith she barely knew. Her captain and co-pilot find her there.

“You come here too often,” her co-pilot says. She distrusts her the most.

“Only when I need too.”

“Our mission is a go. Launch at 1834 hours. Be ready,” her captain says.

“Will you wait a minute while I pray for us.”

“The gods are dead. No one believes in them anymore,” her co-pilot says.

“I don’t know if I believe in them but I remember them.”

“The Regime has no need for the gods,” her captain says. She places a hand on her shoulder. “But in our line of work, we can not turn down an help.”

She nods and bows her head. Two minutes later they leave together.

***

The launch goes off without a hitch. Sub-orbital insertion by the numbers. On and off the enemy radar before their trajectory can be tracked. Their lander blends into early morning traffic disguised as an RV. Four hours later they are in position.

They know target’s name, description, daily routines, job description, friends ranked by trust, pet’s names, and extended family tree. He is a scientist in the enemy’s space program. One that is obviously close to a breakthrough. This can not be allowed.

She takes her shot. Five hours later they rendezvous with the stealth submarine to return home.

***

After they return home, she sits alone in the ruined sanctuary and wonders how the Regime spies can know so much about their targets. Everything about their lives is neatly typed up in file folders referenced and cross-referenced. How can they know so much? Do they have a file on me with as much detail? Do they know what I think about while sitting in this desecrated place of worship? Does it even matter as long as the Regime knows what is right? As long I follow the Regime all will be ok. Right?

***

Many years later, after more missions, after defecting, after the final war, after peace is declared, she is once more preparing for a launch. Their goal is orbit and then farther out. The lander is just a box to get them to space and back.

“When I was a space spy assassin for the Regime,” she tells the technicians, “Our lander could function as an RV after we landed.” They laugh at her and she laughs with them.

“You should not share old secrets so freely,” her old captain tells her. She never defected but after the war, travel and exchange of knowledge opened up.

“The Regime is dead and their secrets are now ours to spread even if no one believes us.” She pauses to stare at the lander. “No matter what they told us, we weren’t saving the world or even our homeland; just slowing down the future.”

“We’re building the future now.”

“Yes, we are.”

Time Crystals and the World of Tomorrow

“Can you believe this?”

“Believe what?”

“I’m reading this article, a serious science article, about a new state of matter called ‘time crystals’.”

“Time crystals?”

“Yeah!”

“Sounds like a hooky scifi plot device.  ‘We need to find the time crystals to power the flux capacitor.'”

“Exactly!  How am I, a humble writer of science fiction, supposed to compete with that?”

“I heard NASA is testing a new type of engine.  Uses microwaves or something bouncing around a chamber to produce thrust.  They said it could lead to a warp drive like travel.”

“Did you hear about those planets that might be able to support life?”  I paused to seethe into the distance.  “See that right there is the problem.  The future is nipping at our heels.”

“Is it really such a problem?”

“It wouldn’t be if the world was closer to a utopia rather than the slow dystopia we’re living in now.  I’d be glad to jump into the future if it meant real advancement for the common people.  How long before the rich leave in their warp ships for clean fresh worlds?”

“It’s not going to be that bad.”

“No, it’ll probably be worse.  After all, they aren’t going to want to do the actual work of building a new civilization.”

“That’s a good thing.  It means regular people will have a chance at making it to these new worlds.”

“Maybe but as what?  Serfs?  Indentured servants?  How long do you think it will take to pay back a trip to another world?”

“We aren’t going to become slaves to the rich.”

“No, of course not.  There will always be a choice but eventually, the choice will seem less a choice and more the obvious answer.  They’re salting the earth, poisoning the seas, burning the sky, and just choking the life out of us.  We can’t even get off the planet yet.  How much worse will it get when they can leave?  How much of your life working for a ‘company’ is worth going with them?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe it won’t be that bad.  Maybe we can fix the planet after they leave.  Even if we royally screw up the planet something will survive.  It may not be humans but it’ll be something.”

“Maybe they won’t make the same mistakes we made.”

Knocking on the Airlock Door

The last person in space heard knocking on an airlock door.

You pulled yourself through the empty space station toward the sound. Again you heard the knocking. Three thudding knocks. You reached the airlock before the knocks sounded once more. Through the window, you looked into the airlock. No one was in the airlock. Not that you expected anyone to be there since you were the last one left on the station.

Left behind when the emergency evacuation order came through and there were one too many people for the return capsules. Everyone had stared at each other in horror as you all realized someone would have to stay. There was no fighting, no posturing, no exceptions. A simple lottery, short straw stays, was improvised with strips of paper. Everyone drew and you lost.

The knocking happened again you to pushed away from the door startled. As you impacted on the wall behind you, you realized the knocking must be coming from outside the station. Some part of the station has come loose, you thought, it could damage something if I don’t secure it. You had several months of air and supplies but it would be all worthless if something knocked a hole in the station.

You went through the nearly impossible task of putting on an extravehicular suit and mobility harness alone. There were latches and seals and straps that were not meant to be closed from inside the suit. For an hour, you struggled with it, all the while hearing the repeated knocking. At first, you cringed at every knock hoping the station could take the hits. By the time you were suited up and ready to cycle the airlock, you had started counting the seconds between the knocks.

As the air was evacuated from the airlock, silence descended around you. You clipped a safety cable from your suit to the inside of the airlock. The outer door swung open and you carefully exited. You looked around for whatever had been knocking against the station but there was nothing. The airlock was at the far end of the station, away from the solar panels or cross modules, meant for docking with the shuttle. The robot arm for moving cargo from the shuttle was locked down, unmovable.

Your safety cable suddenly went slack. By the time you finished turning, the outer door was closed. By the time you reached the outer door, the inner door was open. You struggled with the outer door but safety systems prevented both doors from opening at the same time. Carefully you made your way around the outside of the space station to another airlock. It also refused to open. As did the third airlock.

Stranded in space, locked out of the station, floating with limited air, you began to feel hopelessness creep into your mind. For an hour, you stared into an airlock window willing the inner door to close. Then you saw a shape move past the open door. Just a blur in your vision but it was something. It, you realized, was what had opened the airlocks. It was what had been knocking. It was what you let in.

You waited, staring through the window until you saw it flash by again and then you knocked on the airlock door. It returned to the airlock. Long arms with too many joints pulled it into the airlock. You knocked again. It flinched back before jerking forward to stare back at you through the window. Large multicolor faceted eyes regarded you from an alien face. You knocked again. The alien tilted its head in an almost human gesture and then it left the airlock.

For the next several hours, you continued to knock trying to get its attention but anytime is passed the airlock it would only glance inside before continuing on. With your air supply almost exhausted you began continuously knocking on the airlock. It came then and watched you for the longest time. When you began to labor with each breath it moved closer to the window. The last thing you saw was its eyes staring at you without apparent care.

Plague Ship

The alien ship lit up space with its lasers. Our mirrored hull deflected most of the laser’s energy allowing us to sit quietly as our small barrage of missiles streaked toward the ship. The aliens managed to destroy five of the six but one was all we needed. There was a muffled cheer from the crew through the network as it impacted. A jet of gas exploded from the side of the alien ship.

“Infiltration has begun,” the communications officer said aloud. At the start of the war, our weapons could not defeat the alien threat. So, new weapons were made. Nanite swarms that could be injected into an alien ship and take it over. The nanites formed a hive mind, the colony, to control the new zombie ship.

I sent a signal of acknowledgement through the network and said aloud, “Acknowledged.”

We watched as the lasers firing pattern became erratic and then stopped. I felt the shiver run through me as the new colony connected through the network.

Of course, there was always the danger that the nanites could be accidentally released on our ships. To prevent this we purposely released them and inoculated ship and ourselves with nanite colonies. We became plague ships spreading to any alien ships we encountered.

“Communications established,” she said again aloud. LT Marson’s internal colony was still new and integrating with her biologicals. In a few weeks, she would be be able to communicate perfectly through the network, until then we gave her the courtesy of speaking aloud. “Ship is under our control. Crew has been deconstructed. Entry hole patched. Awaiting orders.”

Nanites are hard to handle at best and disastrous at worst. An out of control nanite swarm could reproduce exponentially devouring a ship in hours. If this happened on a planet, it would the end of life there. For this reason, we can never return to Earth.

“Transmit target coordinates and mission parameters.” I tuned into the ship network. The magnitude of data was more than even my enhanced senses could truly understand. I let it flow over me like music. Somewhere in the flood our ship’s colony was relaying the locations of alien bases to the zombie ship’s colony. The colony on the ship would use its natural camouflage to infiltrate alien space and attack before they knew an enemy was in their midst.

“Alien ship is preparing for FTL. Leaving … now.” We watched as the ship folded in on itself and vanished. Another cheer came through the network.

“Good work people. Now, let’s find another ship. The war ain’t over yet.”

Now Hiring to Work on the Moon

You thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Setup some equipment and a few buildings. Easy money plus you would be doing it on the moon. A private space company wanted to build a way-station at the north pole of the moon, a jumping off point for further space travel. They wanted to cut costs so they hired you and four others, not as astronauts but as a construction crew. There were still a couple of months of training on the equipment you would be setting up and on the habitat construction. None on how to fly the ship or land on the moon. You were just passengers for that part. The ship was automated and had already made the trip several time dropping off supplies and equipment in advance of your arrival.

The trip was uneventful. You and the others made videos for the company’s blog. Standard stuff: flying around the cabin, floating things from person to person, personal interviews about space. And then you were there in orbit around the moon. You piled into the lander, sealed it shut, and strapped yourselves into the seats. One of you pressed the ‘launch’ button and you waited for the computer to launch.

Finally, you heard a faint thud as the lander detached. The ride down was mostly smooth, just a few bumps as the guidance system kept the lander on course. Then you felt the lander begin to spin. The bumps became lurches forcing you against your restraints. An alarm sounded, someone screamed, someone began to pray. You don’t remember if you did either, one, or both of these. A final lurch, a second of free fall, a hard bump, and you were on the surface.

Everything seemed fine until you noticed the lander was not within the landing zone. It took only a few minutes for all of you to realize it was too far to hike in your spacesuits to the supplies waiting for you at the landing zone. Attempts to radio earth were unsuccessful. One of the others began accounting for air, water, and food in the lander. There wasn’t much to count.

You gazed out at the lunar surface and wondered if this opportunity was worth your life.

Confession of a Hypersleep Supervisor

Now I lay me down to sleep
May the tech my body keep
Should I wake before I die
I hope the cold to retry

-hypersleep prayer

***

I’ve never liked hypersleep.  I know it’s safe and I’ve done it dozens of times.  Maybe it’s because it’s not really sleep.  That’s just how the company has sold the idea to the public.  “Sleep your way to a new world!”  Hypersleep.  Suspended animation.  Cryonics.  It all amounts to the same thing.  The cessation of bodily functions followed by the preservation of the body for later revival.  In layman’s terms: we kill you, freeze you, and bring you back to life later.  The tech has gotten better over the years but the basic idea is the same.

As a Hypersleep Supervisor, I’ve done the procedure to hundreds of people and had it done to myself a few dozen times.  Everyone is a little rowdy before we begin.  They’re nervous about going to “sleep” for several years.  I let them think of it as just a long nap, it’s easier that way and most of the will only undergo hypersleep once in their life.  Step one is to induce coma in the sleepers.  I make sure everyone is down before I start freezing the first batch.  It worries people when their friends or family flatline.  Step two, before the heart stops but after there’s no danger of brain hypoxia, I flush their blood stream with anti-freeze compounds to prevent cell damage.  Step three starts when their hearts stop and their bodies are cooled to final storage temperature.  I repeat this until everyone is dead, frozen, and stored away.

After everyone else is tucked away, I get into my tube, attach all the monitoring pads, hook in the blood exchanging lines, and activate the automated freeze and preservation program.  I could set a timer and sedate myself  but knowing that I’m going to die in my sleep is worse than facing it head on.  It doesn’t take long.  I feel the intense cold and then I black out.  This seems to last a few seconds and then I’m awake again.  Still cold but rapidly warming.  My veins burn for a few minutes until the anti-freeze is completely flushed out.  I let the others sleep through that part before bringing them out of their comas.  They wake up never realizing that they were dead for years.

I could give it up.  Settle down on a colony.  Plenty of work for a doctor on these new worlds.  But as much as I hate hypersleep, I never feel more alive then when I’ve just come back from the dead.