01: On a Worldly Stage
Eric Morgan clutched his harness, his breath falling silent as the final countdown began. The hair on his hands stood on end and the tension was a palpable essence. He was equally amazed at what was about to occur and terrified at what it entailed.
A senior NASA pilot, Eric was aboard a much-heralded test of a new technology which promised to revolutionize space flight. It could also change human destiny forever. He stood to travel farther in a few seconds than every other earthling combined since they climbed from the primordial ooze. Instead of traveling miles above the Earth to the now defunct Space Station, hundreds of thousands to the Moon, or millions to the nearby planets, this would throw him light years into the unknown, without any forward momentum. Best of all, without tons of fuel, there was no chance of his ship blowing up under him.
The technology to accomplish this, the Interstellar Spatial Displacement Device (ISSDD), is a fancy term for teleportation. It’s not as sexy as it appears in the movies, requiring a huge infrastructure. Yet it would transport him from a stationary position inside an enclosed NASA laboratory to a point ten light-years away.
While the researchers felt confident that it worked, they encountered problems during testing. They could send things from one end of a lab to another, but faced complications they hadn’t anticipated. There was the obvious problem with moving two things into the same space, but there were ‘displacement’ issues too. In short, transmitting something to a stationary target caused it to fall into the object as gravity affected it before it completely materialized. This also determined how air molecules shifted on both ends of the teleportation. For the return trip, the capsule was programmed with a complex algorithm, accounting for the Earth’s rotation, elevated twelve feet in the air. That allowed it to materialize completely before falling to the landing pads beneath. The only solution to the displacement factor on the outward journey was to utilize areas with few stray elements.
Open space was the simple fix, but there were tremendous amounts of random junk within Earth’s solar system. The gravity of the sun attracted passing comets, and interspace collisions multiplied the debris filling the cosmos. That meant there were numerous miniscule objects traveling through the otherwise empty vacuum of space. Transporting into another object would have unpleasant effects.
That’s why they chose an area clear of potential obstructions; a particularly dark region where they’d never detected any celestial bodies. The hope was, while only there for a few minutes, they could determine where the universe’s missing mass was hidden. Since the estimated mass of visible objects didn’t account for the acceleration of the universe, scientists realized there were huge amounts of unobserved matter. There were several theories concerning ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’, but being unable to detect, it has always been difficult to observe.
They speculated that the gravity which attracts objects to large bodies—such as stars—also disrupts dark matter. Seeking an area with no such dynamic, they were sending Eric’s ship to a region with no detectable physical objects. He stood to witness entities never before observed, from whether dark matter existed in such regions, to making entirely new astronomical observations. What he learned would influence future research into the nature of both time and space.
However, the biggest issue wasn’t technical or theoretical, it was practical. Without any earth-breaking projects in decades, NASA had steadily lost the interest and enthusiasm of the public, and more precisely, the legislators they relied on for funding. With the Space Station abandoned and Congress questioning the negligible benefits of manned missions to the other planets, NASA depended on this solitary initial flight to reinvigorate the public’s interest.
The idea was intriguing. They could transport a fully staffed crew near a foreign solar system and set up facilities for the future. They’d record all the details not otherwise possible, and return to plan the next stage of the endeavor. There were still numerous issues with reaching a habitable planet. Yet the concept of jumping from one observatory position to another whet the most hardened skeptic’s enthusiasm.
The problem with space travel is that our fastest rockets can only travel a fraction of the speed of light. With any meaningful destination hundreds of light years distant, it would take hundreds to thousands of years to travel there. What’s more, the resources required to maintain a sustainable crew were unrealistic. They’d have to recycle everything they consumed. They’d need to create a complete viable ecosystem which could survive for at least a hundred years with no room to expand. The idea you could do so without complications, when putting a few people in orbit in a closed container compromised their physical and mental health, was preposterous.
Making space travel into a series of jumps, from one safe location to another where we could build facilities to allow us to undertake the next stage, was encouraging. Especially if we can do so for a fraction of the cost of flying a manned voyage to Mars.
To generate the enthusiasm needed to get the necessary funding, this solitary trip had become a media circus. Live video cameras were mounted around the ISSDD capsule. They’d record his disappearing and reappearance. To commemorate the event, part of the mission was to flash a light bright enough to reach the Earth in another ten years. That would prove, in a visceral way, the massive distances they’d crossed in the blink of an eye.
Essentially, the entire future of space travel rested on Eric’s narrow shoulders. Seeing there was little he could do to affect the journey, it left him feeling frustrated, anxious and uneasy. He’d return in several minutes an international hero of unimagined significance. This initial test was being watched by millions, with schools across the globe halting their daily lessons to witness the unfolding events.
“Final countdown initiating,” a faceless voice announced over his earphones. He let out a long, calming breath. While nervous, it wasn’t as if this process hadn’t been tested. They sent robots on short excursions, revealing the technique worked by photographing the surrounding stars and correlating them to existing star charts. They transferred small animals—mostly mice, since PETA raised a stink about resuming testing on primates—but this was their first time sending a human. As a result, he already had a whirlwind schedule of speaking engagements once this enterprise was completed. In fact, it would take longer to release him from his tiny capsule than for the entire 60 trillion mile journey! No matter how many times he heard the figure, it still boggled Eric’s mind.
As the disembodied announcer counted down the seconds before launch, Eric tried to prepare for the unknowable. To distract himself, he thought about the processes instead.
NASA achieved the teleportation process by capitalizing on advances in string theory research. Since these ‘strings’ connected multiple places huge distances apart, they’d found a way of forcing the strings open. That provided a way to access any of the way points touched by any one string. It was a controversial premise when first proposed. Many detractors warned it might cause the annihilation of the Earth. Those warnings proved baseless, as various experiments revealed no such danger.
Since you could only visit locations devoid of matter, they traced these strings, settling on a number of destinations. The final selections were based on isolation, a lack of nearby objects, but near enough to Earth to correlate where the end result was. Once they’d done the initial research, and found many of these waypoints, they learned how to calculate where each point resided in physical space.
“3...” the voice called out, bringing Eric’s attention back to the present. With his launch only seconds away, it didn’t make sense concentrating on other topics. He checked the vast array of sensors, ensuring each operated properly.
He glanced around the small cabin, looking for anything out of place. Since he’d only be gone for five minutes total, there wasn’t a need for much inside the tiny metallic capsule. Besides, if something did go wrong, stranding him a trillion miles from Earth, an extra few hours of oxygen or a spare suit wouldn’t buy him much. Either the machinery to make the return jump worked or it didn’t.
This time Eric did hold his breath. He realized it was silly and wouldn’t affect anything, but he was used to planning where he jumped. Having flown test aircraft and shuttle missions for years, he was experienced with facing the unknown, but he’d always watched what was coming. This time, he was going in with no idea where he was diving, relying on emotionless machines to decide which spot in the pool was safest.
The various readings on his display jumped and a hum enveloped the entire craft as it created the linkage to the imaginary strings linking worlds together. It took a few moments to generate the energy to create the opening for the ship to slip into. Eric once again grasped his safety harness as he waited for it to launch. There was a building whine, increasing and growing more blaring, and then he was gone. Simply no longer there, screens across the world revealed an empty platform where his tiny craft once stood.