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“That’s the last of the landers captain.”
“Roger that docking station, secure all cargo and prepare for our final departure.”
I started to get light headed as the captain’s orders rattled over the sound of the machinery in the engine room. For six years I served the two gigantic fusion reactors that powered the ship. I can’t help but admit that I feel a little nostalgia knowing that now, for the last time, I would prepare them to bring us back.
For two and a half years we had been searching the solar system surrounding Alpha Centauri in a research effort. The idea was to retrieve samples from the planets to bring back to earth. I never had anything to do as far as testing the samples for purity or recovering the rocks. Throughout the search I had to maintain geostationary orbits and maneuver the ship from planet to planet.
My whole life as I knew it revolved around the repetitious task of controlling the ships engines. The prestige of the job was what I was here for, to accompany the first manned extra solar mission, but the routine system checks and perpetual data synopsis dragged it down. It takes a lot to lose sight of the human genius and accomplishment but I guess that doing nothing for six straight years would do that.
I could feel the loneliness among the crew, we all were together but the elation in bringing back our research to Earth seemed so distant that it was no longer an incentive for unity. Beyond the testing of physical fitness, intelligence, leadership, mental stability they couldn’t quantify our limits on the wearing of our spirit. The one thing I wasn’t prepared for was the amount of time I would spend alone, sleeping, and dreaming.
“Ready Harry this is it, the last time.”
“Ready when you are.”
It took only about ten minutes to get the engines ready and up to speed as we started our acceleration. After the navigation had been completed, and the ship was on its way, we set in the computer overdrive and went to the sleeping quarters. NASA designed the ship on the premise that with this mission there would be no need for human renavigation so the crew was able to be administered medication to sleep for four months at a time, any longer and the meds would have adverse affects on the body. In a case of an emergency the computers on board would administer a small adrenaline shot to awake the crew and respond.
“All right A.J. I’ll see you next quarter.”
“Yeah one step closer to home; we better finish that game of rummy 10000. I believe your about to owe me two grand.”
“Yeah then you cut your debt to, what would it be…only eighty six thou.”
“You know I’m coming back.”
I hated the hibernation, the dreams, nightmares.
When I woke I took the I.V. out of my arm, I looked on Harry’s chamber but he had already gotten up. I went to my personal quarters to get some painkillers to get rid of the pain that was throbbing in my neck. Harry was at his desk, typical, he never stopped working.
“Harry, hey Harry when are we going to get to that game?”
He stood but the bright light from his desk left him with only a dark somber silhouette. He stood taller than I remembered.
“Harry what are you working on, nothing needs fixing.”
“Yes it does it all needs a lot of work”
Blinded by the lamp the only thing I could see was the shine of the silver fountain pen clenched in his hand as he lumbered towards me.
“We all need to work together now to help this.”
“What are you talking about?”
The whites of his eyes flashed as his irises rolled back in his head. He raised the pen above his shoulder. My feet stuck to the floor as he plunged the inked tip into the flesh of my upper arm.
I fell on my back as he dug it deeper into the bone. I could feel myself dying.
The adrenaline shot startled me as the alarms pierced my ears. The pounding of footsteps around my sleeping chamber brought me to my feet. The computers voice was projected throughout the ship.
“DANGER, DANGER, FIRE LEVEL FIVE IN THE ENGINE ROOM.”
The warning rang over and over. Some of the crew were prepared in fire suits, rushing towards the blaze. The ships frame rattled as spontaneous explosions shook people off their feet. I put on an emergency suit and rushed to help. Up ahead a team of men opened one of the sealed doors. The backdraft sent a fireball twenty feet down the corridor. I turned I knew what I had to do. I sprinted to the main engine controls but Harry had already gotten there and was working furiously to shut down the port and starboard engines.
“A.J. shut down the port engine quick.”
“I’ll do what I can.”
All I needed was time but that wasn’t on our side right now.By the time we had the fire under control both engines were scrap, completely and totally worthless. The crew was assembled for a meeting.
The captain spoke. “We are stranded. Out here with nothing to get us home. We are now traveling at roughly four percent the speed of light and we will all be dead long before the time we get anywhere near the vicinity of Earth. Our only hope is to contact Earth and wait for a return signal. I’m sorry but that’s all that we can do. The signal has already been sent so now it’s only a matter of time before we get a message.”
The crew became uneasy. “How long are we supposed to wait, were screwed, were never going to be rescued this is hopeless.”
“Everyone calm down, given our current velocity and position, and the time it will take Earth to come up with something, it will be about eight or nine years. We will wait and we will survive to see our fellow men again. That is all.”
Nine years. Nine long long years, the promise of seeing Earth again seemed less joyful. I could feel it myself I didn’t want to go home, I felt like my life now existed inside this piece of metal junk.
The message from Earth did come but it was not what we wanted. This was what we got.
“Alexander this is
NASA in response to your distress signal received
That was it, rebuild the ship. With what? We were all tired and weary from the accident, but the promise of being home helped and as zombies we began to use what we had to rebuild the ship. The blueprints called for 300 parallel units to work simultaneously to produce the energy needed to accelerate the ship.
“Harry what’s going to be the ETA with the new machines.”
“At the power output the ship was destined to reach Earth in thirty years.”
“God, the crew will never agree. I mean most of them will probably be dead be the time we get home, I’ll be an old man, and you…”
“I know but it’s all we can do.”
“Why not just make more, if we triple the units we could be home so much sooner.”
“NO, we can’t do that, we have to just except it and make the best of what we can the instructions are not negotiable.”
Rumors spread and soon the whole crew knew their fate, another meeting was held. The captain spoke in an informal discussion to get the ideas of the crew.
“I know what you all are thinking and it troubles me as much as it troubles you. I am aware of my old age and I think that we should try to get back sooner.”
Harry spoke up. “Captain I object, we have no idea what could happen if we disturb the zero-point energy flux in an abnormal way. The set plan is the only way we can be certain that the ship and our research will be found.”
“I want to see Earth one last time.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“As the captain I have decided that we will go ahead with the alterations and be home in time to see our loved ones.”
The crew felt their first sense of joy. For the first time in a few years I could sense a small sigh of relief. We were going to make it and we were going to be heroes back home.
The pieces slowly came together bit by bit. When we only had only one objective the progress could be refined and the whole project started to come together. It took months but that was no comparison to the years that had worn us ragged we finally started to work as a team.
With all the units in place we had counted nearly a thousand units. The wires and controls were in place and we were ready for testing. It was a pretty hack job but when it came down to it the system worked. We were producing nearly fifty times the power output to input ratio for a few short bursts.
Stillness settles in on the crew as the final trial of connecting the zero point energy drive to the thrusters. Everyone held their breath as the captain gave Harry the orders to start the engine system.
“We’ve got acceleration, 1/16g, 1/10g, captain we’re doing it the ships velocity is steadily increasing.”
It was a success. Everyone cheered and clapped, I couldn’t help but show a little smile myself. I looked at Harry as he held his face in his hand I could tell that he felt slight misgivings about the greediness of the crew. The main visual screen in the bridge went black. The troubled face of NASA’s commander tuned in.
“Captain Robert, Captain Robert Jones, this is Earth command, we have extremely vital information for you and you crew. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, let the input output ratio exceed one to twenty five, the density of the zero point flux will collapse. I know that the prescribed system is capable of more but we have suffered tragic losses here as a result of expanded research and I do not wish you the same fate. Fare well.”
I looked back towards Harry but all I saw was the swing of the door towards the engine room. We had by now well exceeded the maximum ratio; the only way to shut it down was to manually disconnect the main input power supply. I sprinted down the corridor dodging the makeshift wires and electrical components. Harry beat me to it; all I saw was bright light reflecting through the engine room door. Then it faded out. The walls of the room were all distorted, and at the base of the dismantled main circuit breaker was the body of Dr. Henry Thorpe.
We rebuilt the engines, took one last deep breath and sighed one last time as we sent the ship and the research adrift towards home. Some year off in the future they would receive it. None of us would make it there. The ship’s log would have the last word in telling our story.
© Copyright 2004 by the author
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