‘Since we first discovered that the pinpricks of light in the night sky were in fact, other stars, humankind has been gripped by the desire to travel to those stars and see for ourselves what they are like. The discovery of the first exo-planets only heightened this need, and as we found more and more earth-like rocks orbiting numerous stars in our local region alone, it soon became imperative that we voyage to those stars, to see if humanity could finally leave earth’s cradle and remove the possibility of extinction from our equation. The biggest hurdle were the laws of physics – nothing could travel faster than light, and even at the speed of light, journeys of forty years, in some cases even longer, would be virtually unsustainable, save for multi-generational crews and long spells in cryogenic sleep.
So the aim of many scientists was to somehow defy, or redevelop our understanding of physics and the laws of the universe that forbade faster-than-light travel. Science fiction had presented fanciful ideas of warp space, subspace, hyperspace and all kinds of means of ‘cheating’, but the reality of these methods, once examined with any critical detail, suggested the energy requirements were going to be beyond us for a very long time – perhaps forever. Either a new source of power was needed – or the laws of the universe would have to be broken.
It was in the early 22nd century when Luca Martinez, an experimental physicist living in Idaho, USA, made his unexpected breakthrough. The idea had been to generate energy through atomic friction, and to that end, he had been making hydrogen atoms resonate with one another. The introduction of dense matter (degenerate matter, in very small quantities, intended to match the density of a neutron star) led to a highly controlled resonation that for a very brief period, moved the atoms from one area of the carbon tube to the other in less time than was possible under the speed of light.
Such was Martinez’ excitement that he dropped his coffee over his lap and had to put up with the suggestion from his colleagues that he had actually wet himself. Decades later, he would laugh about it – at the time, he was said to actually be quite angry. Nevertheless, the development would lead to further study, and refinement, and this led to the production of the first small-scale probes, to test if the Res-Drive (or R-Drive if you’re lazy) was actually viable. The probes were sent under highly controlled conditions from the earth to the Moon, then from the earth to Mars, and from Mars to Jupiter, to see if they were exceeding the speed of light without being subject to relativity. When the results confirmed that the light barrier had been broken, champagne corks were popped and raucous celebrations held. We had done it – but one final test remains. Human pilots will soon take to the first ships fitted with the R-Drive to see if it is safe for people.’
Roxanne closed the textbook and ran a hand through her strawberry blonde hair. It felt unnaturally short, but having it cut had been a requirement of the West Alliance Space Agency. ‘We don’t want any entanglements, literally or otherwise’, the committee had said.
It felt like a lifetime ago that she’d been chosen for this. Somehow, she’d beaten hundreds of other candidates to be the first human to go faster than light. The prospect made her dizzy with excitement and sick with fear, all at once.
There was no turning back now though. In the crisp orange jumpsuit (that was turn covering the thinner body-monitoring grey jumpsuit), Roxanne was suited up and sitting in front of the controls that would, at her command, launch her at unprecedented speeds toward Mars. A short hop was all that was needed today.
One of the engineers who’d help build the Magellan had explained to her about the power source and the technical details of the R-Drive, but she’d barely listened. She wasn’t a physicist – chemistry and biology were her fields – so talk of quarks and Fermi principles had been lost on her. All she’d wanted to know – and had been assured of several times – was that the drive itself was perfectly stable and the power source perfectly safe. Nothing about that aspect of the mission could go wrong.
“T-minus five minutes. Final systems check.” Came a male voice over the comm link that Roxanne recognised as Director Campbell. It wasn’t too much of a surprise that he was taking a personal interest in this. “Fuel line?”
“Check.” She replied.
“Check.” The oxygen filter was keeping her breathing. Air circulated around the cabin in a never-ending loop, filtered repeatedly by the sophisticated equipment. A backup generator would kick it if the primary failed, and her engineers had scoffed at her request for a helmet with an independent oxygen supply, but said helmet sat behind her in the small space available in the cabin. Roxanne wasn’t minded to take any chances.
“Check.” Roxanne tapped a couple of buttons on the grid in front of her. The ion propulsion drive was all set to give her a decent kick away from earth once the clock stopped ticking.
“Sublight navigational controls?”
“R-Drive navigational controls?”
“Check.” In theory, Roxanne could override the controls and set a new destination, but she didn’t dare. Everything had been pre-programmed and that was fine with her.
“FTL comm system?”
“Check.” Roxanne would have to trigger the beacon to confirm the success of the mission – and it was a convenient test of the R-Drive’s long-range communication principle.
“We look good down here in Control. Four minutes and counting.”
“Roger that.” Roxanne gulped. The butterflies in her stomach had morphed into mini dragons that were belching flame. “Deep breaths girl, deep breaths…” She recalled her Yoga and her training, though more and more she wished the mission was over already.
The Yoga was kicking in. She could feel the edginess in her subside. A gentle hum of instruments distracted her from what was about to happen, and the march of time was briefly forgotten.
“This is Control, hey Rox, just wanted to wish you luck.” Roxanne smiled. Her jovial boyfriend lifted her spirits.
“Thanks Fred. Don’t forget to have dinner ready.” She chuckled.
“Oh, well, I was thinking we should go out for dinner when you get back. Celebrate the mission, our engagement…”
Roxanne had to check her comm link. “En… engagement?!”
“Yeah, oh crap, I meant to do the other bit first – you know, ask you and everything…”
“Oh God… the answer is yes, a million times yes!” In the midst of the impending mission, a different kind of excitement overtook Roxanne. “Yes!”
“So as if you didn’t already have a reason to come back, that’s another one.” She could hear the smile in his voice – and it wouldn’t at all surprise her if Director Campbell was pissed at the sudden interruption to his orderly proceedings.
“One minute. Disengage the umbilicals.” Came the deliberately stern voice of the Director. Roxanne complied, and Magellan floated freely in space, no longer berthed to the station where she had been constructed. The craft’s independent systems kicked in.
Autopilot took the ship slowly away from earth, at a relatively sedate 2 km/s. As the R-Drive fired up, the ship seemed to hum with power. This is really happening…
“From everyone down here, good luck. We’ll see you on the other side.” The Director’s voice was softer.”
“Roger that Control, here we go…”
The Magellan seemed to oscillate for several seconds, and then vanished.