A Sea of Stars
Lesley L. Smith
As we stood next to the launchpad, the questions washed over me like breakers on some distant shore. I held my smile and tried not to squint in the bright lights of the press corp. It wouldn't do for the first sympanaut to be anything less than dignified on launch day.
"What's sympanaut mean?" a reporter asked.
My boss, Hector Gonzales, was fielding the nontechnical questions. "A sympanaut is an astronaut that goes to other galaxies. 'Sympa' derives from the Greek word for universe, just as 'astro' derives from the Greek word for star."
Standing next to me, my assistant Cal said in a stage whisper, "Liam, where's Mira?"
Still smiling for the cameras, I said, "She's not coming."
This morning when I'd left the house my sixteen-year-old daughter Mira'd said, "You can't leave now. Mom's just died." Even though it'd been three months I understood why Mira was so upset. Hell, I was still upset, but this mission was years in the making.
Cal stuttered, "Not coming? She should say goodbye. What if you don't make it..." His sentence withered away under my gaze.
Hector said, "We have time to ask our sympanaut a few questions."
Immediately, the press started shouting my name. "Dr. Milan! Dr. Milan, over here!"
Hector pointed at someone.
"Dr. Milan, how far will the ship go? And how does it work?"
Hector said into the microphone, "I can address how far it will go. We hope it will escape the Milky Way Galaxy and go to another galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, which is about 2.8 million light years away. As for how it works, I have to defer to the expert, Dr. Liam Milan." He gestured at the microphone. "Liam?"
I stepped up, forced a grin, and said, "Beats me," and paused for laughter. My P.R. handlers had taught me humor was very situational; an expert saying he didn't understand something was unexpected and hence funny.
Words were situational, too. But I'd learned that the hard way...
When I'd gotten home from the lab that fateful day, dinner wasn't on the table like it usually was. "Honey?" I called out to my wife, Anne. "Where's dinner?"
Mira appeared in the kitchen doorway, eyes red, tear stains on her cheeks. "How can you ask about dinner at a time like this? Where have you been? Why didn't you answer your phone? I've been calling you for hours."
I checked my phone. It was turned off. "I'm sorry, Mira. A time like what?
"Mom's dead," she said and ran out of the room.
"What?" Suddenly, I felt as if I'd been transported to the center of a black hole and the gravitational pressure was crushing me to death. "Wait. What happened? Are you all right?" I ran after her.
"Dr. Milan, you were going to explain how the drive works?" the reporter said. We'd done a bunch of un-manned tests but this was our first media event.
I cleared my throat. "Ah, yes. The faster-than-the-speed-of-light drive. It's fascinating, really." I forced a smile. "It's based on the idea of quantum foam, the subatomic space-time turbulence at Planck-length distances. At such small scales, the uncertainty principle enables particles and energy to exist for a short time and then annihilate without violating conservation laws. This means as the scale of space-time shrinks, the energy of the virtual particles increases. Then, obviously, since energy curves space-time according to general relativity, at sufficiently small scales the energy of the fluctuations would be large enough to cause faster-than-light travel." Stopping to take a breath, I grinned widely.
The reporters' mouths were all hanging open.
Cal and Hector were shaking their heads.
The reporter who had asked the question said, "Huh?"
Cal whispered, "Seriously? That's what the P.R. guys told you to say?"
"No," I said. I'd gotten carried away for a minute.
Hector stepped back to the microphone. "Don't worry, folks. I can translate." He paused and gave me a dirty look. "Quantum foam is similar to ocean foam. We're all familiar with the phenomena of waves on the ocean, right? The waves transmit energy and the ocean foam forms when the energy churns up ocean impurities. The FTL drive determines where the quantum foam--space-time energy leftovers, if you will--is strongest and from that determines where the space-time energy is strongest. It then utilizes this energy to travel great distances." That was all a huge simplification, but the reporters seemed to be buying it.
One of the reporters said, "In this day and age can we really afford to spend money on these pie-in-the-sky projects?"
I stepped up. "With overpopulation and climate change here on earth, can we really afford not to try to find new worlds for humanity? There are no habitable worlds accessible via traditional propulsion. The ultimate survival of the human race is at stake. We need this."
I did start to get a little nervous as Cal strapped me into The Tempest. A lot was riding on this test, namely human access to the rest of universe.
In terms of size the FTL drive was quite small, as was the quantum computer than ran it, so the ship itself was only the size of a day sailing yacht. We did have some powerful astronomical equipment so I could figure out where we were once we got there, but that was about it. I didn't have much in the way of supplies because I didn't expect to be gone long. And, frankly, if something went wrong, I didn't want to linger, so my meager supplies included a pharmacopoeia. Some of the animal tests hadn't turned out so well. On the other hand, some had turned out fine.
Soon, we were ready to fire up the drive and Mission Control started the countdown. "Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Go!"
I started the program.
"ArIel reporting for duty," a female voice said. "Initiating quantum FTL drive now."
"Roger that." ArIel was the ship's A.I. computer system. I clutched the arms of my chair, bracing myself for the worst.
For the first few moments the drive was engaged, nothing happened.
I panicked for a second: What if it didn't work?
Then a silent spill of light flowed from the screen and cascaded toward my feet. A fractal dance of photons, a billion pieces of light, filled the ship and the system began forging space-time.
Thank God. It was working.
Now I just had to wait until I was there--wherever there turned out to be.
Waiting was difficult. I was a do-er. I wasn't a wait-er. I debated prescribing myself some meds, but no, I wanted to be alert in case something went awry.
Speaking of going awry, my mind turned again to Mira...
She'd locked herself in her room and I'd been knocking on the door. "Come on, honey. I know you're upset about your mom. So am I. I'm really sad, just like you." I leaned against the doorjamb as it all hit me. Anne was gone. Forever. Oh, my God. Tears filled my eyes and overflowed.
"Yeah, right," Mira said. "Are you still going on the mission?"
I tried to pull myself together; I had to for Mira's sake. I wiped my face with my sleeve. Was I going on the mission? What would Anne want me to do?
She'd want me to go, to try to save humanity.
"Yes," I said. "I've been working on this project for a long time," I said. "And now we finally get to go public and tell the world we can travel the universe. I need to be there in case-" I didn't want to say, 'something goes wrong.' "In case something needs to be repaired."
She never opened the door.
Back in the capsule, I wondered how Mira was doing. I did feel guilty about leaving her alone. Anne's death was so sudden and so unfair. My chest felt tight. "Oh, Anne, I miss you."
In the ship I sensed something accumulate behind the software and thrust itself out of the computer like a space-time tsunami.
The fractals escaped.
My legs were no longer legs; they had transmuted into an infinite shoal of ambulatory fractals.
The fractal transmogrification swam up my body.
I didn't have time to be afraid.
I was everywhere, from the Sun to Alpha Centauri to the center of the Milky Way and beyond. And everywhere was me...
I woke quaking from head to toe in universe-sized agony, but it ebbed like a fast-moving tide. My face was wet and when I lifted my hands to my eyes, nose, and ears, they came back red with blood.
I couldn't go through that transformation again. It was far too painful. If it didn't kill me, I'd wish it had.
ArIel said, "Program 1 Complete."
I closed my eyes and willed myself to calm.
That was so much more intense and horrible than I thought it would be. ArIel and I birthed a near-deadly storm with our quantum magic.
Breathe, Liam. I focused on taking air into my lungs and pushing it back out. After a few minutes, I stopped shaking.
I had to know where I was, so I got to work measuring the period and magnitude of Cepheid variables and taking other observations of stars and hopefully some planets. The Cepheid relations I computed with the data demonstrated I was in the Andromeda Galaxy. "Yes! We escaped the Milky Way!" I threw my fists into the air. "Yes! It worked! My FTL drive worked! Yes!"
I was the first human being to set eyes on the wonders of the Andromeda Galaxy. The black ocean of space lit by oases of stars was too beautiful for words. I stared at it for I didn't know how long.
I wanted to tell someone. I couldn't tell Anne but I wanted to tell Mira. I pictured her cheeks flushing and her eyes lighting with excitement. I pictured her throwing her arms around my neck and saying, "I knew you could do it! I'm so proud of you, Dad."
I paused. But she wouldn't say that. She'd say something like, 'How could you leave me?' And how could I leave her in her grief? That wasn't right. Despite everything, she was still a girl, not yet a woman.
"Liam, initiate Program 2 to return to Mission Control?" ArIel asked.
How could it be time to go back? I'd just gotten here. I double-checked the ship's log and found I'd been passed out for almost a day after I arrived. "Shit."
The P.R. team wanted me to come back on schedule for another press conference, but I wasn't sure I could handle another transition. I didn't want to handle another transition.
I reached my hand out over the enter key. My finger shook like a rowboat in a hurricane thinking of the bizarre stretched-out feeling and the pressure. And the pain.
I couldn't do it; I couldn't endure that agony again.
But I only had about twenty-four hours of air left. If I didn't go back, I'd die in a day anyway. Death by asphyxiation would be less painful than experiencing the FTL drive again.
But what would Mira think?
She'd think I'd failed. That I'd abandoned her.
I realized I couldn't live with that, even for a mere twenty-four hours.
Shaking, I forced my finger to hit the enter key.
After a few moments, photons started spilling from the screen.
I clenched my jaw, dreading what was to come.
"Liam?" Cal's face was a mere inch from my own. "You're covered in blood. Say something."
I heard Hector's voice say, "Are you okay? Say something. Liam, the press is here." They were standing over me in the ship. Through the open hatch, I could see another flock of squawking reporters.
"I'm calling in the medical personnel," Cal said.
"No. Help me up," I managed to say to him, and pointed at the stage.
He helped me to the podium.
The reporters' questions were a cacophony of sound roaring over me.
"Dr. Milan, what happened?"
"Did you go to the Andromeda Galaxy?"
I realized a sea of strangers faced me; no one was really here for me. I was alone. My mastery of the universe was a hollow victory with no one to share it with.
"I'd like to say something," I leaned forward and said into the microphone.
The reporters quieted, and I cleared my throat.
"I'd like to apologize to Mira," I said. "I'm sorry I went on the mission and left you behind. From the bottom of my heart, I'm sorry." My voice broke.
"And if you give me another chance I promise to try to make it up to you." I straightened.
There was a chirping cell-phone noise behind me.
Cal stepped forward. "It's Mira. For you."
I reached for the phone.