Harlan Cole tapped the command pad, absentmindedly. It never mattered how many times they engaged the drive, it always made him shudder just a little bit inwardly. He remembered the old sailor’s prayer.
“O God, be near me – the ocean is so big and my boat is so small”
The Exeter was a perfect storm of technologies and the correlation of one man’s genius in putting them all together. With the economies of the world struggling for new frontiers, it was actually the captains of industry that pioneered this charge into Faster-Than-Light travel, though not by intent.
Still in its infancy, the United Earth Directorate knew that they lacked the resources that private industry could provide. So rather than attempt to develop projects in direct opposition, they subdivided the efforts into specific projects, contracting them with private industry. The first to develop would own the exclusive manufacturing rights to any technologies developed. The Mushimitsu Corporation of Japan had provided the first key, in seeking to develop a means of increasing the efficiency of cargo ships.
Rather than focus on engine technology, which could only produce finite gains; they concentrated on ways to decrease the weight of their cargo, yielding Mass Reduction Field. First generation models were able to partially phase mass within a field, reducing its weight in real space time. The resulting advance had been only the beginning.
Dr. Jay Randall Nunnally had theorized that if you could direct a stream of tachyons, you could provide forward motion in space at faster than light speeds. At the time, the theory was considered improbable because the amount of power it would take in order to move tremendous mass of a space ship. The invention of the MRF invited a resurgence of research into his theories.
In tandem with Bell McDonnell labs, the MRF was adapted to their specifications. Experimentation with the MRF produced some unexpected plusses. Along with reducing the mass of an object, it was discovered that it preserved the environment within the field, including gravity and other forces. A ship’s MRF field activated at sea level, and from that moment on, as long as the field was maintained a perfect replication of Earth’s gravity was maintained –even in space.
In the mean time, the first tachyon impeller was created in a small university lab in Exeter, a historic city located in Devon, England. The implied aim was to see how far past the speed of light that tachyons could be accelerated. While the experiment in itself had nothing to do with propulsion, its principles were directly responsible for the creation of the Tachyon Impeller Drive that powered the Exeter.
The third and final major breakthrough that allowed for the development and creation of the Exeter space ship was the development of the Hammler-Strong Fusion Reactor. Two U. S. Scientists working in conjunction from different institutions at Stanford University and M. I. T. had developed a method of Nuclear fusion that was far more efficient in producing energy than ever had been realized. Despite the massive amounts of power it generated, the reactor itself was relatively small in size, coming in at only slightly larger than the Nuclear reactors that powered modern Navy submarines and Carriers.
The UED used a correlation of these new technologies in developing the first manned space flight to not use rocket propulsion of any kind. Constructed in secret, the Exeter was kept out of the public eye. The combination of technologies was labeled the Exeter drive, and would be collectively developed for applications in space. The major advancements in propulsion had been complimented by significant advances computing speed and power, allowing them to control the flight of the ship at such velocities.
Harlan Cole had been brought in towards the end of the project to helm the fledgling space ship, along with a handful of specially trained astronauts from various backgrounds. The ship itself was the largest ever built, capable of easily accommodating the 30 man crew. If tests were successful, then the Exeter would be decommissioned to become a centerpiece in UED history, a testament to its early success.
Cole had been offered the assignment as a way to reshape the way he was viewed within the governments of the UED. This mission needed someone with experience who could be cool under pressure. There were other names offered up, but none could surpass his versatility, ability and longevity. A natural leader, the men under his command were more than encouraged by their chances of success in first flight.
He and his team trained alongside one another for two years while the preparations were being finalized. He remembered how exciting things were towards the end of their long wait. Even he could not suppress a bit of enthusiasm as the time grew close. He’d grown so accustomed to being secretive in his career that it was a welcome change to be open about a mission. They’d all made video files of their training and were encouraged to record their own private thoughts before, during and after the mission. For the sake of posterity, they wanted to have a true inside glimpse into the lives of the crew of the Exeter.
They were in their seventeenth month of space flights. The initial tests had been very successful. They were now regularly engaging in flights out of their solar system, mostly to test maneuverability and the relativistic effects of traveling faster than light within normal space. Contrary to previous theories, travelling those vast distances exceeding the speed of light did not produce the time distortions they initially expected. It seems that once the speed of light is exceeded, temporal relativity is not a factor space travel. It seemed that temporal relativity was a barrier that coincided with the speed of light; once breached, it had little if no effect on the travelers.
With each new successful return, he’d pushed for greater and greater distances to truly test the ability of the Exeter Drive. Going to the end of the solar system and back really wasn’t going to be a moment in history worth remembering. The Earth had been sending probes out on such missions for decades. No, in order to truly capture the imaginations of the world, they needed something truly out of the science fiction world. They needed to visit another star system and return. In the end he’d been able to convince the Directorate that such a mission was not rash, but a prudent risk when it comes to gauging the true potential of the Exeter Drive.
The view screen had provided a simulated representation of their travel through space using sensor input. To be honest, no one really wanted to look outside when they travelled, partly because of the irrational fear that the human mind would not be able to comprehend the representation of space at that speed, and partly because of the completely rational fear that the human mind would not be able to comprehend the representation of space at their current speed.
They had planned to make several long jumps, allowing themselves ample time to utilize the sensor equipment onboard to take readings of predetermined stellar phenomenon. The idea was to make use of the opportunity to display the awesome potential of interstellar travel. They’d made note of several asteroids for study, some of which were composed completely of iron ore, or crystallized water. Finding such elements in abundance in deep space made for real practical applications in harnessing raw materials. Rather than damaging our own habitat by mining for ore, base elements could be located in space and simply towed home.
Cole set down his coffee cup and returned to viewing his pad. He was reviewing photos taken by the Hubble-Seven optics. He really didn’t expect to find anything, but sometimes he used captain’s discretion to investigate things he found interesting. So far he hadn’t come upon anything of note –until his eyes focused on something silhouetted against the Peony Nebula, a bright nebula located relatively close to the galactic center. It looked as though it was little more than a blip, but it was not anything that could have been seen from Earth. He activated the com system.
He knew that Sarah Brightman, a brilliant astrophysicist, rarely left Stellar Cartography. He would have to make sure to suggest in his mission debrief that their next ship should keep the Hubble team’s living quarters in the same area as their observation equipment. Sarah Brightman had initially resisted going into space until she saw the plans for the Hubble Seven Imaging System. They were quite literally taking the latest Hubble telescope with them. From that point on, she was sold.
“What is it?” She snapped.
She didn’t like to be distracted when she was working, which had made her somewhat difficult for others to work with. Cole didn’t mind. He realized it was just her way and once you got past that, she was a solid worker.
“I’m looking at something on my pad. I want you to change tasking and get me a closer image.”
“Wait a second…”
He could hear her keying in that familiar sequence on her station that would allow her to pull the image and quadrant directly from his pad.
“It’s probably just a stationary mass like an asteroid.”
They had encountered them before—asteroids that were dead in space for one reason or another. Even so, he liked to check thoroughly.
“It’s …. Oh my god… It’s not an asteroid, Cole!”
“I’m sorry. Say that again?”
“Not an asteroid! The damn thing has running lights! It’s maintaining a steady position in space, but it’s definitely a ship of some kind!”
The bridge crew froze in their chairs. Out of all the things they prepared for, this was the thing they expected the least. The possibility hadn’t even occurred to them. All through training it was the thing that they joked about during lunches or to lighten the mood in classes, but no one ever really expected it. This was the sort of thing that in the back of his mind he silently dreaded. There was no preparation that could be made—no briefing that could be given; a situation like this is purely fluid.
“How far away is it?” He asked. His voice was calm, as if this was nothing out of the ordinary.
“Just a walk in the park…”He thought.
His professional response shook them from their stupor. “About a dozen light years or so. We could reach them in a few hours, but it’s a precision jump using the tach for distances so small…” Benson was better than he could have hoped as navigator, and Waits was an exceptional pilot.
“Make the calculations then. I don’t need you to bring us alongside her, but I’d like to get within a few hundred thousand miles if you please.” He kept his instructions short, not giving away any hint of excitement. To them he might have seemed cool and calculating, but he knew that in a time like this, he had to be on the mark. Even the appearance of over-eagerness or excitement could encourage them to exhibit the same way, and that could be dangerous to them all.
They responded well to him. They’d taken several hours to make the calculations with Stellar Cartography keeping a constant watch on the ship’s position. It had kept in place the entire time they were making the calculations for the Tachyon jump. Cole had rationalized that if they were able to see the spaceship, then the odds were very likely that they were able to see the Exeter as well. The fact that they hadn’t moved in all that time suggested that they were either as interested in them, completely uninterested, or unaware of them—which didn’t seem likely.
By now the entire ship was abuzz with the event. Curiously enough, the worst response he had to contend with was an overuse of Video Blogs. Everyone wanted to be the first to record their thoughts of the event. He didn’t really care. His involvement was to ensure that they did their jobs—not to worry about posterity. He sometimes forgot that he was a product of an older generation. Along with anxiousness, though, there was also nervousness and fear. Most of the crew was young, having to be so to withstand the rigors of space travel, with most barely touching 30. None of them had ever been tested in a real world crisis. In spite of this, he was confident that they would perform to standard. Out of them all, only he and the Ship’s doctor were safely out of their young adulthood.
“Bring us online, Waits… Benson…” He commanded. By now they all knew his tones well, and his easy style of command made the situation seem like a walk in the park, despite the implications.
“Yes Sir…” They echoed.
“Kick us into high gear, and take us in….”
With the words barely out of his mouth, he felt the imperceptible change in the ship’s attitude as the Exeter drive hummed to life. He looked at his command console, and noted the countdown timer put them there at slightly over seven hours. He gave orders to the crew that those with EVA, or Extra-Vehicular Activity experience should get some sleep now. Cole required little sleep, which added to his mystique among the crew. Only the ship’s doctor was privy to his enhanced physiology, with it being a medical necessity if anything went wrong. In battle conditions, he could go for perhaps 5 days without serious detriment to his operating condition. Under ideal conditions, he could sleep for perhaps four hours, longer if he’d sustained physical damage.
The hours went by quickly as they approached the exit point. They called the movement a Jump because they exceeded relativistic speeds, but they didn’t actually leave normal space, like in wormhole theory. The ship couldn’t be steered by a human being manually during such speeds—the reaction times required precision movements that a normal human being just couldn’t accomplish at that speed. Cole could muster enough control to handle it for short distances, relatively speaking—but only with computer assistance. He’d trained for such eventualities as a last resort, but only as a last resort. Even so, the corrections he could muster would take place over hundreds of light years. Precision maneuvering in hyper velocities for extended periods was simply not possible.
They came out of Tach, slowing to fusion propulsion speeds about five hundred thousand miles away from the vessel. Cole ordered the forward view screens online.
“Onscreen, Sir…” Benson announced.
The ship itself was massive in comparison. The Exeter itself might have been equated with the size of a luxury yacht, this thing looked more like an aircraft carrier. It was over fifteen hundred yards in length and easily four to five hundred yards across. The center on the Ship was spherical, with large protrusions jutting out from its top and sides, jutting forward from the sphere almost like the talons of a claw. Out of its rear jutted twin drives, from the looks of it. The thing that seemed out of place was that the entire ship appeared to be devoid of any kind of lighting or any indication of activity.
“She’s just sitting there…” Waits said. The young African American pilot couldn’t suppress a hushed tone, as if he thought they might be listening.
“Eyes open, people.” He said. “I want to know any signs of movement from that ship, hostile or otherwise. Two –I want you to find us a place to pull alongside that thing.”
“Do you think that’s wise, Sir?” Sten asked.
“We’re here to explore, Sten…” He smiled at the Swedish communications officer. “Can’t do that if we hug the wall all night and don’t ask them to dance…