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I Dream of Tomorrow

by Jeff Dosser

My eyes snap open and I gulp in a scene that my groggy mind struggles to comprehend. Klaxons howl while strobing crimson lights sparkle ruby-bright along a frost-encrusted ceiling only inches from my nose. For a long moment, I feel I’m inside a glass coffin, and I’m filled with the strangest sense of déjà vu. Am I dead? My breath echoes in my ears; I’m not dead. Slowly, a label fixes in my mind, a word for this thing I’m in: a cryo-bed.

I’m waking from cryo-sleep and... and something’s gone wrong. I place a hand against the icy ceiling and push. With a hiss, the lid swings up, the imprint of my palm sparking a memory, a vision of ancient cave paintings, a man’s mark forever trapped in time. I’ve seen this hand print before but can’t place it. Maybe in a dream.

Cradling my head, I try to shut out the clamor as memories crash across me like waves. My name... my name is Lane Meeks, Captain Lane Meeks, and this... this is the Space Union vessel, Pyxis.

I swing my legs to the floor, sniffing at the air. There’s a smell here, a hint of... smoke, of burnt electronics. As I try to rise, my legs buckle, and I sag to the floor. Across from me, I see another glass top rise; another member of my crew freed from the glass coffin. A name crawls across my thoughts, and I mumble it more to assure myself than for any other reason: “Commander... Fossey.”

I make another attempt to stand, clutching at the lid of the cryo-bed like a drowning man to a life-preserver. This time, my legs hold. I’m standing in a cramped room with a row of chairs mounted before a console running the wall’s length. Opposite, a bank of flashing lights and flickering monitors display the trouble we’re in.

The Pyxis is a science vessel. I remember now. Stumbling forward, I drop into the center chair. Somehow I know it’s mine. Memories thaw as I type across the keyboard and screens spring to life. An image of the ship appears like a three-dimensional jewel glinting in the air above me.

More memories flood in, causing my heart to skip. Carla, my wife, is aboard. And my daughter, Amanda. I swipe a hand across the holo of the ship and zoom in on the crew quarters. My shoulders sag with relief upon seeing their cryo-status in the green. A check of the remaining eight crew members and their families shows everyone in the green.

Behind me, a rattle of stiff footsteps and suddenly Fossey is in the chair beside me, her black hair a bird’s nest of unruly curls.

“What’s the status, Captain?” Her hands crawl across the keyboard and a second 3-D image of the ship floats next to mine.

“Darrell, kill the alarm,” I shout to the onboard AI.

No response.

Fossey’s eyes meet mine. “Darrell?” she says.

No response.

“Darrel, report status,” Fossey orders.

The klaxons blare on.

“The AI’s knocked out,” I yell. I type in the commands to cut the alarms then examine the screens more closely. The shouting sirens go quiet and silence descends like a curtain.

“Captain, these ship updates are over twenty minutes old. I think Darrell has locked up.”

Fear grips like a fist as I think of Amanda and Carla, the possibility they may not be okay.

In seconds, we’ve got the live status restored. Crimson and orange dots mar the ship’s holo like a cancer. The entire lower deck, the Alcubierre Drive — or Bierre Drive — as well as the fission reactors, are a sea of red.

“We’ve lost three of the crew,” Fossey says.

Dear God, not my girls.

“Who’d we lose?” I ask. I spot a breach in the cargo bay and a fire in the secondary hull. I let Fossey do her job and dispatch drones for the repairs.

“Sparks, Gifford and Brown,” she says.

A wave of relief washes over me as well as feelings of guilt, guilt at the relief that someone else besides my wife and daughter are among the dead.

“Do you know what happened?” I ask.

There’s a weighty pause as she examines the screens. “Looks like we encountered a gravitational anomaly,” Fossey tells me. “When the Bierre field collapsed, we were thrown into a debris belt encircling it.”

With the immediate threat to the ship under control, I type in the commands for navigation. The ship’s holo shrinks away, and the region above our heads explodes to reveal constellations of stars. A green line tracks the trajectory of our flight from Earth to the star system 18 Scorpii. Three-quarters of the way through the flight, our path halts, and a red blip flashes in the dark. I zoom in.

“There’s your gravitational anomaly.” I point to a red globe at the center of the display. The green dot of our ship rides dangerously close to the sphere’s periphery.

“A black hole?” Fossey’s brows pinch in disbelief. “What the hell’s a black hole doing out here? How did the scouts miss it?”

I punch at the panel, reading the results as they flash across the screen. “No wonder no one picked this thing up. Look at its speed.”

Fossey whistles in appreciation. “Two million kph! Is that right?”

“Faster than a bat outta hell.”

“A little bigger than a bat, but I’ll give ya the straight outta hell part.”

I squint across the screens, not liking what the sensors are showing me. By my readings, we’re locked into a terminal orbit. We need to get Darrell online, and fast.

More systems wink from red to green on the display. At least the repair drones are still functioning. Air scrubbers hum softly in the background, eliminating any hint of smoke and leaving me with the cold, sterile aroma of the ship and the musky stink of my own unwashed body.

“What’s the status of the AI?” I ask.

For the first time since I’ve known her, a twinge of panic edges into Fossey’s voice. “It’s not looking good, Captain. We’ve got micro-meteor impacts all across the lower decks. Several penetrated through primary as well as backup systems. Worse yet, it looks like that deck fire took place right in the center of the AI core.”

She glances up and meets my eye. “To tell the truth, Captain, I don’t know how we’re even alive.”

I turn my attention back to the computer as calculations explode on the screen in a flurry of formulas and spinning 3-D images. As we study the data, Fossey says out loud what I’ve already guessed.

“We’re being pulled in aren’t we?” She pauses as her eyes devour the figures, then sinks into her chair with a sigh. “How long do we got?”

With a sigh, I push up from my seat and study the shifting displays. “Twenty-four hours. Probably less.” I notice a green spark among the forest of red lights. Despite being on battery power, the Bierre Drive is still active.

“Take a look at that,” I say, pointing to the Bierre Drive gauge. “It’s still online.”

Sweat beads her brow as she considers the screens. “You’re right, the dark matter generators are still functional.” She spins in her chair and points to a slash of red on the ship’s 3D display. “But the fission reactors are toast. There’s no way primary power can be restored.”

“But there’s enough power to activate the Bierre Drive,” I say. “We could create a warp bubble in front of the ship.”

Fossey purses her lips in thought then shakes her head. “I don’t see what good it will do. We can’t enter the warp field, and the ion drives are virtually dead. We barely have enough power to manuever.”

“If an escape pod were outside the ship when we activated the field,“ I say, “it would be thrown free. Every pod’s registered with a quantum-entangled beacon at Space Union Headquarters. We’d be rescued in a few years.”

She studies the numbers, her eyes darting from the screen to the ship’s holo. Then she turns, pinning me beneath a look of stern disapproval which I’d grown to fear.

“Captain, controls to the Bierre drive are out. The only way to activate it is through the bridge panels.”

“Yeah, I noticed that. A dead man’s switch.” I stare out the hatch window and study the bright pinpricks of light beyond. “Which means someone has to stay behind.”

“Captain Meeks,” she begins. “Lane,” — she rises from her seat to stand beside me — “I know what you’re thinking, but you can’t. You’ve got a wife and daughter to consider.”

I smile and take her hand. “You’re going to be in that escape pod, Commander. That’s not a request, it’s an order.” I look up and smile. “Besides, I’m not letting you steal my glory. Hell, once we settle 18 Scorpii, they’ll be naming elementary schools and streets after me. ‘Lane Meeks Lane’. Has a kind of ring to it, don’t you think?”

Emotion fills her eyes, and she laughs. “No, that’s the worst.”

“Now come on,” I say. “Help me crunch the numbers, then you can join the rest of the crew for a very long nap.”

Within an hour, Fossey and I have the computations. We feed the coordinates into the pod’s navigation and set the timer. As Fossey climbs into her cryo-bed, she takes my hand. “I’ll make sure they know what you did.” She scrubs her wrist across her eyes and smiles. “I’ll make sure Amanda knows what kind of man her daddy was.”

She lies back. and the lid hisses shut. In moments the remnants of humidity inside her pod crystallize on the bed’s cover, glittering like diamonds across the glass.

When I type in the command to abandon ship, a soft clatter of gears lowers Fossey’s cryo-bed into the deck. I watch as she slips beneath the floor and slides down a ramp. In moments, the rumble of movement vanishes as all the cryo-beds are shuttled into the escape pod and the hatch snaps closed. With a rumble that throbs through the deck, the escape pod is away.

From the window, I watch as the pod’s cylindrical body drifts into view. In moments, the ion engines ignite with a flash of sapphire flame and the cylindrical craft dwindles into the darkness.

“Okay, Meeks,” I say to myself. “It’s show time.”

A quick systems check shows battery power at eighteen percent, the ion drives at five. After triple-checking my calculations and studying the screens as the escape pod maneuvers into position, I bring the dark matter generator up to full power and activate the Bierre Drive.

The familiar sensation of static electricity surges through me as the drive is activated and generates a warp field around the ship. Then, just as suddenly, the feeling is gone. When I check the reading on the entanglement detectors each crew member wears, I’m relieved to see everyone’s life signs at 100%. With a sigh of relief, I stand. It’ll be an hour before I can confirm the pod’s location, and another fourteen more before I make my own plunge into the black hole. I do what anyone in such a situation would; I fix myself a sandwich and wait.

Readings on the pod’s position come in slowly, the process of discerning results complicated by the electromagnetic soup surrounding the singularity. Soon the disaster becomes clear. I clutch the console in horror at the realization of what I’ve done. Somewhere in my reckoning, I’ve made a mistake. The pod has been thrown three million kilometers from the anomaly, but my miscalculation placed them squarely in the path of the black hole. My wife, my daughter, and what’s left of my crew have less than two hours before they’re sucked inside, and there’s not a damn thing I can do.

I examine and reexamine the numbers, searching for the error. Then it hits me: I never checked the Bierre field integrity. It takes a while to override the damage to the sensors and check the log. When I do, it’s as plain as the nose on my face, an eight-percent deviation in the Bierre field geometry. With the vast pull of the black hole, something as simple as a small deviation has translated into a seventy-degree variation in the pod’s flight.

I grip the chair in frustration, my fingernails digging into the leather. My carelessness has doomed everyone I love. If only I could go back. If only I could tell myself to check the field geometry before the jump.

My head snaps up at the thought. What if I could go back? I could send a message to myself to check the Bierre field, save Carla and Amanda and everyone else. In theory, time travel is possible, and here I am sitting on the edge of a black hole, the biggest rip in space-time there is.

I dig back in my memory trying to recall the details of my thesis on the Kip Thorne Inconsistency. Maybe, if I dive into the event horizon and activate the Bierre Drive, then, feasibly, a wormhole could be created. A wormhole back in time. Of course, the Pyxis herself couldn’t make it through such a hole, the odds against that would be astronomical, but the ship doesn’t need to make it through. All I need is a gap large enough to send a signal to the other side, a message in a bottle, a warning to myself.

My heart hammers as I plug in the numbers. On the screen, I watch the black hole gobble up the distance to the pod. Soon, concern for my family becomes too great, and I give up the work. I stare at the screens, paralyzed by a morbid voyeurism as the pod races to its destruction. With quivering fingers, I trace the cold flat surface of the screens, across the green indicators telling me my family is alive. Then without fanfare, without explosions, without a sign they’d existed at all, their lights wink out replaced by a simple yet cruel message: SIGNAL LOST.

An icy depression seeps into my limbs, twines itself around my heart as the tears come. I give way to the loss and cry, unable to believe they’re gone, reliving those last moments when I’d tucked Amanda into the cryo-bed, her stuffed rabbit cradled in her arms, the last warm caress of Carla’s lips against mine.

With an angry intensity, I return to my work. A message across time is the only hope to save my girls, to save my crew. Having made the final calculations, I turn the Pyxis towards the ebony nemesis that has consumed my life. I ignite the ion engines. Damaged thrusters alone won’t provide the needed acceleration to enter the Bierre field, I know that, but the gravitational assist the monster gives me should handle any acceleration the thrusters fail to provide. In less than two hours, I’ll have more than enough speed for the jump, almost too much.

All that’s left is to set the automated rescue beacon to broadcast my warning... and wait.

It’s a strange thing preparing for one’s death, literally to stare into the heart of darkness. It gives a man an opportunity to review his past choices, both good and ill. The screens flash with input as the Pyxis reaches relativistic speeds, diving with abandon towards the event horizon. Doubt rises like bile as my mind gnaws at variations in the formulas, unknowns of mass and speed and angle injected into the equation. Then again, I have no choice. At best, this gamble offers me a chance at redemption, at worst, oblivion.

“Well, Meeks” — I tap the key and activate the drive — “here we go.”

* * *

My eyes snap open and I gulp in a scene my groggy mind struggles to comprehend. Klaxons howl while strobing crimson lights sparkle ruby bright along a frost encrusted ceiling only inches from my nose. For a long moment, I feel I’m inside a glass coffin, and I’m filled with the strangest sense of déjà vu...

Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Dosser

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