By Kem Stone
You are about to take a journey through an enormously vast universe, which you will experience for the most part through the eyes of one very small human being. You will form your own opinions of this universe and this character as you go, and I do not want my preliminary words to influence your thoughts any more than they must. However, there are a few crucial things about this story that I feel are too important not to mention before you begin.
This book began as a sequel to a science-fiction novel I wrote as a young man, during my final year of high-school. This book, Andromeda, was a re-write of a book I had written as an even younger man, during my first year of junior high-school. The original version of Andromeda spawned six sequels, together making one long tale that only suffered from the terrible misfortune of having been written by a child. Yet in spite of the unreadable nature of these seven books, they served to provide this universe and its inhabitants with a rich and incredibly detailed history, much of which has made its way into this book in one form or another.
Therefore, as you enter this universe you should be aware that you do so in the middle of the story, rather than at its beginning. These characters have already been through a great deal, and I have tried to provide as much of their history as possible both within the text and in the prologue, which aims to describe all of the important events from the first novel in the form of a short-story. Consequently, the prologue is also the longest chapter of the book, and is packed with information that might seem superfluous in the context of the particular event it describes, but all of which has significance within the larger tale.
Finally, although this story takes place in the distant future and concerns space-ships, advanced technologies, alien races, etc. I do not consider it science-fiction. In traditional science-fiction, one aspect of science or technology serves as the key element behind the story. This tale involves five key elements which I see as fundamental to our experience. They are the personal, the political, the scientific, the philosophical, and the spiritual.
These five elements run throughout the entire story, though the dominant element will shift from section to section. The focus of the first half of this book is mainly personal, as it introduces the central character and his outlook on the life he has found himself living. The second half will reveal more of the political structure of the universe, transcending the life of the main character but seen always through his eyes. The next book will delve deeper into the philosophical questions of the universe, while the final book will rise to the level of the spiritual, tying all the other elements together. All the while, the science will prop up the other elements, allowing them to be examined in the widest scope possible—the scope of the entire universe and the totality of its time in existence.
story is not an allegory, though its various meanings should be applicable
to the world we live in today. Ultimately, this story is meant
to be enjoyed, but also to provoke thoughts of a greater magnitude than
those we experience in ordinary life. This is the story of an
entire universe and of one man’s place in it. Ours is the story
of our individual place in this universe. How you look at one
will determine how you see the other. What any of it means—and
whether it has meaning at all—is for you to decide. Welcome
to the universe.
– Black Hole
It has been sitting at the core of the galaxy for billions of years, slowly devouring the universe. Without it, the galaxy could not have existed, just as a solar system could not exist without a star. But while a star has dominion over only the rocks and dust in its orbit, a super-massive black hole reigns over an entire galaxy of hundreds of millions of stars. The spaces between the stars in a galaxy are measured in light-years, the distance a beam of light travels in one year. The spaces between galaxies are measured in millions of light years—expanses so empty and vast that to traverse these gaps was once beyond comprehension.
A black hole is born when a massive star dies. A star is born when matter condenses enough to reach the temperature needed to ignite the process of fusion, and they die once this process can no longer continue. The fusing of hydrogen into helium and heavier elements at the core of a star prevents it from collapsing in on itself, but when all of the hydrogen is exhausted, the collapse resumes and one of three fates awaits it. If the star is about as massive as the sun, the contraction is stopped by the pressure of the repulsion of the negatively charged electrons, and the star becomes a white dwarf, the size of a planet but with the mass of a sun. If the star is more than twice as massive as the sun, the force of the electrons is not enough to stop the collapse, and the star becomes a neutron star. Held together by the nuclear force, these stars are the size of mere mountains but with the mass of two suns. But if the star is three times more massive than the sun or greater, not even the nuclear force can stop its collapse, and the fabric of space and time itself is torn apart by the star’s violent destruction, and it becomes a black hole, with the mass of many stars but no size at all.
The perceived size of a black hole is not the size of the collapsed star—which exists merely as a dimensionless singularity at its core—but the diameter of its event horizon, the point at which the pull of the dead star’s gravity is too strong for even light to escape. Depending on the mass of the star from which the black hole formed, the event horizon can stretch across a few kilometres, or in the case of a super-massive black hole, across light-years—enough to swallow the entire solar system.
These behemoths formed from the deaths of the earliest giant stars, at a time when the universe looked much different than it does in its present form. This universe was merely a sea of hydrogen distributed in near uniformity throughout the cosmos, with a few random pockets of gas condensing tightly enough to ignite into stars. But once these stars began to die and black holes came into being, the stuff of the universe was torn apart and galaxies were formed. Whenever a black hole appeared, it would claim an amount of matter directly proportional to its mass from the gas surrounding it, and in this way each new black hole staked a claim to a certain amount of cosmic territory that would be linked to it forever, the gas and dust spiralling around it as it was slowly consumed by the black hole.
In the universe’s present form, galaxies are filled with maturing stars and nebulae rich in heavy elements that were cooked and ejected into space by ancient stars, all spinning around the black holes that are responsible for their formation. But as the universe is constantly expanding from the Big Bang which marked its birth, the galaxies are constantly contracting from the pull of the black holes that will ultimately bring about its death. Eventually all of the matter in the universe will be consumed by the super-massive black holes that dwell at the heart of every galaxy, which will themselves decay and die, leaving behind no trace that anything had ever existed at all.
But black holes, stars, and galaxies might as well not exist anyway if it were not for another, far more mysterious phenomenon—awareness. The birth of conscious thought in the universe is an incomplete story at best, beginning with the heavier elements cooked in the universe’s stars and ejected out into space through supernova explosions. Over aeons of time, some of these heavier elements that were situated in just the right locations—planetary bodies warmed by nearby stars—formed into DNA, a molecular structure with the miraculous capability of duplicating itself. This self-replicating molecule would transform the surfaces of the planets on which it formed, converting the lifeless matter into living, organic creatures, which would evolve through the ages into ever more complex and intricate forms. The forms that were better able to survive and replicate themselves endured, and in this way the structure of the brain eventually came into being, a piece of the universe capable of gathering and storing information about the surrounding universe. And finally, in some very rare instances, the brain would evolve to the point where it could interpret this information, share it with others, and eventually reach a stage where this tiny clump of matter could contemplate the entire universe in all its vastness from its distant beginning to its eventual end.
One self-replicating form of matter harbouring brains capable of abstractions of such magnitude was a species known to themselves as human beings, who had their humble origins on a planet they called Earth—a tiny rock orbiting an average star on the outer rim of the Milky-Way galaxy. This planet had circled its star nearly ten billion times before human beings appeared, and circled it another three million times before the human brain was capable of complex thought. But once this capability—which they would come to call intelligence—had been sufficiently refined, things began to accelerate very quickly. After only another forty-thousand trips around the sun, human beings had organized themselves into complex societies known as civilizations, and six thousand trips around the sun later, they were already capable of launching themselves from the surface of their planet of origin and into the space beyond.
But humans developed advanced and dangerous capabilities far more rapidly than they developed mastery over their intelligence, and the same natural traits that had been hardwired into their brains to survive through millions of years of evolution soon brought them to the brink of destruction. Towards the beginning of a period of time the human calendar designated as the third millennium, all advanced human societies throughout the world collapsed, and a war of all against all ensued that nearly brought about the annihilation of the entire species. But this great wave of destruction eventually broke, and in its wake a new world structure emerged under the leadership of a man who was able to unite the numerous rival powers of the world into one sovereign government working in the common interest of all mankind.
Nearly one thousand years after the Great Collapse, at the dawn of the fourth millennium, humanity finally resumed its journeys into space. Private corporations working for the goals of human expansion and the spirit of exploration travelled throughout the solar system, establishing colonies wherever they could be maintained. Space-faring technology advanced rapidly, and in the year 3261 of the human calendar, a discovery was made by a scientist working for a company known as the Space Travel And Recording Corporation—or STAR—allowing the manipulation of the rate of passing time while travelling close to the speed of light. This made it possible for a small crew of human beings to traverse the light-years-wide gaps between the stars in what to them would take only days.
The next century saw the human species begin its expansion beyond its native solar system and to the stars that surrounded it. A new era in human history had begun, and it would eventually come to last longer than any previous age of human existence. But even before humanity had fully adjusted to the changes this new technology had brought about, some were already urging to push this capability to its limit. A crew of human astronauts could reach another star system in a matter of days, though years would still pass on Earth. Adjusting human perception to regularly think on these time-scales was difficult enough, but some in the STAR Corporation were already thinking on scales even grander. Everyone knew that the gaps between stars could now be traversed, but it occurred to only a few that the unimaginably vast gaps between the galaxies could be crossed as well.
And so most of humanity was completely astounded when it was announced in June of the year 3421 that the STAR Corporation would be launching a mission to the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky-Way—Andromeda—two and a half million light years away. A crew of twelve astronauts was selected to go on this mission that would take them not only farther into the universe than any human had ever dreamed of going, but farther into the future than any human mind could then comprehend. Five million years before the launch of the Andromeda spaceship, human beings had not even existed on Earth. By the time of its return five million years later, human beings would have spread throughout the entire Milky-Way.
many hardships, the ship did reach the Andromeda galaxy, travel through
to the other side, and turn around to make the journey home, though
by the time it had passed back into the Milky-Way its original crew
of twelve had been reduced to a crew of six. The astronauts who
remained were already at the limits of their sanity, and all regretted
having agreed to embark on this journey that had seemed so romantic
in their imaginations but had turned out to be so arduous in reality.
And now, as they reached the final stretch of their voyage, on the 331st
day of the mission, with the human calendar reading 31 December 4,927,038,
they came at last to the most dangerous point in their journey.
Because of the inadequacies of the tracking methods in spaceships built
in the fourth millennium, the Andromeda could not return directly
to the solar system, but first had to rendezvous with the core of the
Milky-Way galaxy, home to the ancient and deadly super-massive black
hole that dwelt there.
Arnold Juciper sat in one of the seats in the front row of the cockpit of the Andromeda spaceship, his eyes transfixed on the black hole that dominated the view from the window, its event horizon less than a light-year away. As the commander of this unprecedented and extraordinarily ambitious voyage, he had done his best to follow the instructions of the STAR Corporation to the absolute best of his ability, and for the sake of accuracy in triangulating a course back to the solar system, he had been ordered to bring the ship as close to the centre of the Milky-Way as possible without being swallowed by the black hole. Now, as he sat staring at this terrible wonder of the natural universe, he could almost feel its gravity tugging at him, lifting him out of his seat, and he wondered if he had not perhaps taken his ship too close.
It would certainly not be his first error as commander of the Andromeda. Memories of his previous mistakes were constantly tearing at his mind, and now these memories seemed sharper and clearer than ever. He stared at the black hole, a massive bubble of total darkness surrounded by a swirling disc of matter from a star that had journeyed too close and was now being funnelled through the event horizon and packed into the singularity that lay at its core, and he thought about that other black hole to which he had taken his ship too close—the one that lay at the core of the Andromeda galaxy and had claimed the life of Todd Blankens, one of his medical officers.
Commander, Todd had said on the day of that disastrous Extra-Vehicular Activity, I know we’ve already had this discussion but I would really appreciate it if you’d let me off the hook on this one.
I’m sorry, Todd, Arnold had replied, but we need eight people to conduct this scan properly, and we’ve only got nine crewmembers. One of us has to remain in the ship during the space-walk and although I’d like for it to be Lily, she doesn’t know how to fly the ship and she insists on going out there anyway. Lauren will stay here while the rest of us get out there and do what we came all this way to do.
But Arnold, Todd protested, you don’t understand. I can’t go out there. It was bad enough on the practice EVA back at Gateway, and then we were only a few hundred kilometres from Earth and I still blacked out. Now Earth is two million light-years away, and I honestly don’t think I can handle it.
Arnold was losing patience at that point, and he spoke more harshly than he intended. Look, Todd, I understand you suffer from agoraphobia*, but you had to overcome that when you went through your astronaut training and you’re just going to have overcome it again now. You have your orders and I expect you to follow them. Then, already feeling a bit guilty about forcing this nightmarish task onto the doctor who had been recruited by STAR having never wanted to become an astronaut in the first place, Arnold turned back and said. Besides, once you’ve done this you’ll never have to be afraid of anything for the rest of your life.
But as it turned out, the rest of Todd’s life was not to be very long. The first part of the EVA had gone smoothly, as the astronauts each released their name-balls—rubber spheres the size of basketballs with their names written on the surface—out into Andromeda to commemorate their presence there. The next stage of the EVA was completed successfully as well, as the astronauts arranged themselves in a circle and used their hand-held scanning devices to collect all of the information from the light of the Andromedan stars that could be gathered, which would allow STAR to make a rough map of the galaxy as it had existed while they had been there. But in order to get the most accurate data, they had to perform the EVA on the day in which their ship was to pass the closest point along their trajectory to Andromeda’s galactic core.
The final stage of the EVA was to bring all of the astronauts back on board the ship through the airlock, which they had to do one by one and would take about ten minutes for each of them. Though Todd had asked to be the first to return, Arnold insisted that the second-string medical officer Lily Zaw, who was suffering from a mysterious illness she had contracted shortly after their ship had passed into Andromeda, be the first to return to the ship. In spite of her illness, Lily had requested to be a part of the space-walk, and though she had seemed to enjoy it while it lasted, when it came time for her to re-enter the spaceship, Arnold had discovered that she had passed out in her spacesuit. He asked Todd to help bring Lily back to the airlock, but at that point Todd was too overwhelmed by his phobia to offer much assistance to anyone, and the other six astronauts helped return Lily to the ship while Todd remained frozen in his space-suit, just waiting for his turn.
But by the time they had succeeded in bringing Lily back on board, Arnold found that he could no longer see Todd—that he had drifted out of sight and out of the range of his spacesuit’s primitive communications system. Arnold blasted himself in the direction he believed Todd had been drifting, but quickly noticed that he was accelerating far more rapidly than he should with only the thrusters from his Manned Manoeuvring Unit. He would never forget the feeling of absolute horror he felt when he realised that he was being pulled towards the galactic core by an incredibly strong gravitational force, and had he drifted for just a few more seconds his MMU would not have had enough fuel to overcome that momentum and allow him to return to the ship. Todd Blankens had drifted too far, and there was no hope of his ever coming back. He would keep on drifting until he was inevitably swallowed by the black hole at the centre of Andromeda.
The loss of Todd Blankens had been particularly devastating for Arnold, who had to face the fact that this it was entirely his fault, but to the rest of the crew it was just another tragedy in a long series of tragedies, the worst of which had occurred just two weeks earlier, when the oldest and most respected member of the Andromeda crew, Chief Medical Officer Elliot Larken, had taken his own life in order to ensure the survival of Lily Zaw.
Five days after the ship had passed into Andromeda, Lily had awoken with terrible pains afflicting her entire body. Ignoring the standard STAR protocol which forbade crewmembers from coming into physical contact with any crewmember suffering from an illness prior to the determination of the nature of the illness, Elliot had held her to give her comfort, as she was understandably frightened at the prospect of having come down with an unknown and possibly incurable disease. The two had only recently formed an intimate relationship, though Elliot had not been able to bring himself to make love to her. He was still terribly grief-stricken over the death of his fiancé, a fellow astronaut named Sara, whom he had lost on a mission to colonise the core of Jupiter—the project to which Elliot had devoted most of his career at STAR and which had earned him one of the most distinguished reputations in the company’s history. The loss of Sara to one of the gas giant’s deadly storms was undoubtedly what had brought Elliot to agree to join the crew of the Andromeda mission, having seen it as a way of escaping the emotional pain that was now irrevocably connected to the planet he had once been so passionately devoted to. When it seemed that he might be in danger of losing another woman whom he had come to care about, Elliot lost all concern for his own well-being and he held her. The very next day he awoke with the same symptoms.
By then the medical officers had determined that the disease was in fact of unknown origin, and it would rapidly eat away at the heart over a period of a few weeks, causing death before the bloodstream could cleanse itself of the infection. Todd Blankens pointed out that he could save a patient by replacing the heart just before its failure, once the bloodstream had been sufficiently cleansed, and as it happened they had a spare heart frozen in the engine room, in the body of Science Officer Craig Malls, the mission’s first casualty. The problem, of course, was that there were two patients and only one heart.*
Arnold had called together a crew discussion to decide who would be given the transplant. Elliot refused to receive the operation, insisting that Lily be saved. Lily too refused the surgery, and after a heated debate Todd had pointed out that according to STAR protocol, Elliot should be given the operation because of his superior rank. Elliot Larken was the ship’s chief medical officer, and was also serving as the back-up science officer, as both of the ship’s original science officers had been lost early in the mission. Lily Zaw, on the other hand, was merely a second-string medical officer, and as harsh as the reality was, this simply made her more expendable.
No, Elliot had protested once Arnold had made the final call. You can’t make me have the surgery if I refuse to have it.
I’m sorry, Elliot, Arnold had replied, still quite unsure of himself at that point, but Lily doesn’t want the surgery either and I’m not about to let both of you die just because you don’t think you can handle the guilt. There are times when the success of a mission requires that we make sacrifices, and as difficult as it may be to live with it afterwards, having the operation at the expense of another crewmember’s life is one of those sacrifices you’re being called on to make.
Then I’ll resign as a member of this crew! Elliot shouted, his long-buried emotional turmoil beginning to rise to the surface. This is one sacrifice I’m not willing to make!
I don’t want to make it either! Lily now yelled at him. Please, Elliot, just accept this. It’s the right decision. You’re more important to this mission than I am, and I couldn’t bear to live anyway if I knew it was only because I let you die.
Listen to her, Elliot, Arnold said, trying to remain calm in spite of the sick feeling beginning to rise in his gut. Just take some time and think things over and hopefully in a few weeks once Todd is ready to perform the operation, you’ll feel differently.
It was then that Elliot stood up and began pacing around the interior of the living quarters, continuing to talk but to no one in particular. No, it’s not her fault. I shouldn’t have touched her. She didn’t do anything wrong. It was me. It was my fault. I could have held on. I could have held on tighter. She didn’t have to die. It was all my fault. I was too weak. I shouldn’t have touched her. She could have been saved, but I had to hold her. I had to hold her! I shouldn’t have let her go! I should have held on tighter! She didn’t have to fucking die!
Then he stopped and went silent, at the rear corner of the living quarters where the garbage chute was located. The rest of the crew had remained seated in silence, not sure how to react to the mental breakdown of the normally very calm chief medical officer. But now before any of them realised what he was doing, Elliot pressed the button which opened the interior hatch of the garbage chute, thrust himself inside the little box, and slammed on the eject button.
Arnold immediately leapt to his feet and darted across the room to hit the chute’s override button, but by then it was too late.
She doesn’t have to die, Elliot softly uttered as the outer hatch began to close. The last anyone saw of the legendary Elliot Larken, he was hunched into the tiny garbage chute, a strange smile in his face. I’m coming, Sara, he said. And then he was gone.
It had been a crushing blow, one that the crew would never fully recover from. Though many of the astronauts had already been developing problems with one another, everyone had a tremendous amount of respect for Elliot, and it was devastating to see him go. And as if fate wanted to show them just how cruel it could be, when the time came to perform the surgery a few weeks later, Todd’s death had left the task to second-string Medical Officer Ronald Stark, who let his hand slip when the pilot, David O’Brian, made a sudden and unexpected course correction during a critical moment. Lily died on the operating table, rendering Elliot’s death in vain.
Finally, to compound the tragedy even further, Ronald was spattered with Lily’s blood during the operation, and he came down with the disease the following day, succumbing to heart failure a few weeks later, the last of the mission’s casualties. The ship had just passed out of Andromeda on its return trajectory when Ronald died, so with little more than half of the mission completed, the crew of the ill-fated Andromeda had already been reduced to only half of its original size.
Arnold wondered if things would have gone any differently if it had not been for that first crucial error he had made at the beginning of the mission—the one that cost him the lives of both of his science officers, Mark Staff and Craig Malls. But although he would never stop feeling responsible, he knew their deaths were not entirely his fault. The two had been at each others’ throats even before the mission began, as Mark was one of the best scientists in the corporation and Craig was relatively un-intelligent, having only been placed on the crew due to a large donation made by his wealthy parents to STAR. Craig had a passion for space that his parents had nurtured in him since childhood, and going on the Andromeda mission had been the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. Mark, on the other hand, had opted to go on the mission because of the high financial compensation that STAR was offering, as well as the clout that being part of such a mission would earn him as long as the company was still around when the mission was completed. Craig resented Mark for his lack of passion, and Mark detested Craig for his lack of intelligence and the free ride he had been given all his life.
Hostilities began to really flare up between the two astronauts by the second week of the mission, and Mark was threatening Craig with a beating if the other science officer did not keep his distance. Arnold warned Mark that if he carried through on this threat, he would be kicked off the crew, forced to remain on board as a mere passenger for the duration of the mission until the ship returned and STAR could implement the proper disciplinary actions. But Mark did not take Arnold’s warning seriously, and on the third week of the mission tensions finally burst. Mark had recently paired up with the ship’s engineer Maria Wendall, and when he saw Craig talking to her he became jealous and confronted him. Arnold was in his office at the time, so he did not see what happened, but when Craig came to him with a bloody nose he decided he had to take action, and he sent for Mark to report to him immediately.
What the hell were you thinking? Arnold challenged Mark as soon as he entered his office. It was still early in the mission and he was still feeling confident in his authority. I warned not to lay your hands on Craig.
He had it coming, Mark replied, a smug smile on his face.
Oh really? said Arnold, pushing his chair back from his death. Would you mind explaining what it was he did to provoke you?
He was harassing Maria, said Mark. I told him to leave her alone and he got indignant. Said he had a right to talk to whoever he wanted. When he started shouting at me I just couldn’t help but give him a quick sock in the jaw, and that shut him up. It’s no big deal.
It is a big deal, said Arnold. Far bigger than I think you realise. First of all, whether you like it or not Craig does have the right to talk to whomever he wants. Second of all, you do not have the right to strike another crewmember. You know what the penalty is.
Look, I’m sorry, said Mark with obvious insincerity.
You’re not sorry, Arnold shot back. But you will be. I’m afraid I have no choice but to follow protocol on this one and kick you off of this crew. As of right now, you are no longer the ship’s chief science officer. You are a passenger. You will no longer be required to carry out your duties. Your name will be removed from the official crew roster. And your name-ball will not be released into Andromeda.
For the first time since Arnold had known the science officer, Mark Staff was silent. This was a heavy blow and Arnold knew it, but he was only doing what a STAR Corporation mission commander was supposed to do in this situation. Of course, this situation was rather unique, as no previous mission had required its crew to make the kind of sacrifice that Mark had already made, but Arnold believed his hands were tied.
Are we clear? Arnold asked.
You’re not serious, Mark said. Look, I’ll apologise to Craig. I promise I won’t do it again. But you can’t kick me off the crew. Not after everything I left behind just to go on this mission!
I’m sorry, Mark, said Arnold, but you’ve left me with no choice. I gave you a warning and you chose to ignore it. Now you have to live with the consequences.
We’re finished here, Arnold shouted. Now if you’ll excuse me, this discussion is over, and I consider the matter closed.
But of course, the matter was not closed. Arnold had seriously underestimated the devastating impact his action would have on Mark’s psychological state. They were only three weeks into the year-long voyage, and Mark was not prepared to spend the rest of the journey in shame and disgrace. Everyone he had ever known back on Earth was already dead, and when he returned it would all be for naught. And so after spending the day brooding and sinking rapidly into a state of hideous emotional turmoil, he finally lost control of himself that night. While the rest of the crew slept, he took a knife from the ship’s kitchen area and stabbed Craig Malls to death.
When the crew awoke to the sound of Craig’s screams, Mark came at Arnold and nearly killed him as well, but he was stopped by a blow to the back of the head from Elliot Larken. Mark swung around and held the rest of the crew back with his knife. He knew he had just crossed the most serious line of all, and that unless he took action he would not merely be spending the rest of the mission as a passenger, but as a prisoner. Still holding the knife to ward off anyone who might lunge at him, Mark slowly backed himself up to the ship’s garbage chute, and ejected himself into the vacuum of space.
Though none of the crewmembers said anything at the time, they all blamed Arnold for what had happened, just as he blamed himself. When the time came to report what had happened to STAR, Arnold could not even bear to tell the true story, and he lied about what caused the deaths of his science officers. The action he took which resulted in the death of those crewmembers and his subsequent refusal to take responsibility for it when the time came lost him the respect of most of his crew. For the rest of the mission, the incident would be a permanent stain on his reputation and his conscience.
This guilt continued to gnaw at Arnold as he sat and stared into the black hole, its gravity seeming to have some supernatural power of lifting his most deeply buried emotions to the surface. At last his stream of consciousness was broken by the sound of another person entering the room, and he immediately felt his mood soften as he saw that it was Lauren—one of the ship’s two pilots—the woman he loved.
“It’s good to see you, honey,” said Arnold softly as the short, brown-eyed beauty made her way to take the seat next to him. “Did you have a nice nap?”
“Not really,” answered Lauren with a yawn. “It’s hard to sleep when you’re surrounded by other people. You’d think you’d get used to it after awhile, but you don’t.”
Normally, Lauren would man the cockpit during the “day” hours while the other pilot, David O’Brian took the helm as the rest of the crew slept, but over the past few weeks, all routines had broken down completely and everyone just slept whenever they were tired. David had all but officially resigned from the crew, as he no longer accepted any of Arnold’s orders and merely went on duty whenever he felt like spending time in the cockpit alone.
“I had the most awful dreams,” said Lauren. “My fucking father was in them.”
“Shit,” said Arnold, who was not accustomed to swearing unless he was upset, but the mention of Lauren’s father certainly warranted the exclamation. As a child, she had been sexually abused by the man, who had been forced into a marriage with her young, immature mother after an unwanted pregnancy. Lauren had been an accident which ruined the lives of both of her parents as well as scarring her permanently, and most of her life had been spent repeating the same miserable patterns of abuse established by her father when she was too young to understand what was happening. She was one of the most quiet and introverted people Arnold had ever known, but for some reason she felt comfortable around him. Yet it was still weeks into their relationship before Lauren finally opened up to him about her childhood.
In contrast, Arnold’s childhood had been somewhat normal, or at least as normal as it could be with a father who was also one of the STAR Corporation’s most celebrated astronauts. Arnold Juciper Senior had been a major part of the century-long campaign to explore and colonise the Centauri system, the first major initiative taken by STAR after the discovery of the technology which made interstellar travel possible. Lauren’s mention of her father got Arnold thinking about his own, and in a flash it was like the black hole brought forth another deeply buried memory to the forefront of his consciousness.
Nothing can travel faster than light, his father was telling him one day in the backyard of his house when he was eight years old. But when you get close to the speed of light, time starts to slow down for you, and while hours are going by to the people on Earth, it only seems like minutes to you.
That’s impossible! Arnold shouted, absolutely fascinated by what his father was telling him.
It’s true, said his father. But what’s even more incredible is what we discovered a hundred years ago. A man who worked for my company—his name was Arthur Romband, a brilliant scientist—figured out a way to make the difference between astronaut time and Earth time even bigger. So when your father flies now, hours can go by on Earth in only seconds!
Is that why you look the same as I remember you? asked Arnold.
That’s right, his father told him. When your dad flies to Alpha Centauri it takes two years of Earth time to get to because it’s two light-years away. But in astronaut time it just takes a few days. The last time I saw you, you were just four years old, and that was four years ago to you. But to me it was just a few weeks ago.
Are you gonna go back there? Arnold asked, desperately hoping his father would say no.
Some day I will, his father answered, but not for a long time. I’ll be around for at least another year or two. But when they send another spaceship there, STAR is going to want your father to fly it.
Because you’re the best, right, Dad? Arnold asked with a smile.
That’s right! said Arnold Senior, patting his son on the head. Without me they would probably get lost on the way to Alpha Centauri and it would take ten years just to get there!
There was a brief period of silence as Arnold pondered the information his father had just given him. Why can’t they make it take less Earth time to get to Alpha Centauri? he asked.
They can’t, his father answered. They would have to make it possible for a spaceship to go faster than light, but that would break all the laws that hold the universe together.
I wish they could, Arnold lamented. Then you wouldn’t have to be gone so long and Mommy wouldn’t need Mr. Bradley to come and keep her company.
His father’s expression changed suddenly, and he did not reply. He just stared at his son with a frightening look on his face, and then slowly rose to his feet and walked silently back into the house. That night, Arnold listened as his parents spent nearly half the night shouting at each other. Although he wasn’t completely sure what was happening, Arnold understood the basic problem. His father was angry at his mother for letting another man into the house while he was away, and his mother was angry at his father for expecting her to stay alone for four years at a time.
As Arnold grew up, his parents remained married, but the love between them grew colder with each mission his father went on, again when he was 11 and finally at 18, by which time Mr. Bradley had become more of a husband to Arnold’s mother than his father was. The divorce finally came when Arnold Senior returned from his last mission, his son age 22 and his wife now significantly older than him. He had missed twelve years of his son’s life, though Arnold Junior never resented him for this, focussing his anger more on his mother for not remaining loyal to his heroic dad.
Arnold had followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the STAR Corporation, rising through the ranks rather quickly due to the name recognition he had inherited. He was even chosen to command the historic mission to Barnard’s Star, the second closest star system to the sun, when that campaign was opened. The mission caused him to miss eight years of his daughter Rachael’s life, and it nearly destroyed his marriage, but he was too devoted to his passion for exploration. When STAR offered him command of the Andromeda, Arnold knew that accepting would mean severing ties with his family completely, and though he was devastated at the idea of never seeing his daughter again, he knew the opportunity was just too unique to give up.
His daughter, who idolized her father just as much as he had idolized his own, had even encouraged him to accept the command. Rachael, who was sixteen at the time, had told her father she would not be able to live with herself if she knew that she was responsible for his having turned down the chance of a lifetime. And as it turned out, the sacrifice Arnold had been willing to make was one he did not have to make anyway. During the first period of communication between the Andromeda and STAR Headquarters, on the 65th day of the mission, Arnold was told that a second spaceship had been sent one year after their own to follow in their footsteps, and Rachael had been allowed to go along as a passenger. If all went well, Arnold would be re-united with his daughter one year after his ship returned to Earth.
But Arnold could not be sure that everything was going to go well. Something about that black hole gave him a sense of foreboding darker than any he’d felt so far on the mission. Though he was not one to believe in premonitions, he had a strong feeling that the worst was yet to come, that some unspeakable catastrophe was about to befall his crew.
“How much longer do we have before we break orbit and return to the solar system?” Arnold turned and asked Lauren.
“The black hole is still between us and home,” Lauren replied. “It’ll be about twenty-six hours before we’re clear for departure.”
“That’s too long,” said Arnold. “When we first caught sight of it yesterday I thought it was one of the most awe-inspiring things I’d ever seen. But now I’m really beginning to hate it.”
“I know what you mean,” said Lauren. “It’s hypnotizing. And it gives me the strangest feeling…”
“You too? Well, there’s really no need to have to look at it, is there?” Arnold suggested. “Why don’t you orient the ship to face the direction of our momentum rather than our centrifuge? If the thing is to the left of us we won’t be able to see it, then maybe we can forget it’s there.”
“Out of sight, out of mind?” Lauren remarked.
“It’s worth a try,” said Arnold. “All I know is I don’t ever want to have to look at the thing again.”
“I’ll take care of it,” said Lauren, and immediately input the sequence into the control panel which would re-orient the ship to face the direction they were moving rather than the point they were orbiting.
“I’ll go alert the crew that we’ll be moving for a second,” Arnold said as he rose from his seat. He then made his way to the back of the cockpit and through the door to the living quarters.
The room seemed to look smaller each time he entered it, though it was the same 500 square metres it had always been. For the millionth time, he cursed the STAR Corporation for not having built a larger ship for the purposes of this mission. The Explorer model was meant to sustain a crew of twelve for only about two weeks, not an entire year. On normal missions, the crewmembers were able to handle the complete lack of privacy for the short time required of them, but on this mission having all twelve beds in the same room with no walls or barriers between them had been an utter nightmare. The kitchen area in the back of the room was separated only by a counter-top and offered no escape for anyone wishing to be alone. Only Arnold’s office and the ship’s bathroom, both located at the front between the living quarters and cockpit could provide any genuine privacy, but neither offered much by way of comfort, and the crewmembers had been forced to accept that they would almost never be alone.
Arnold found that the only one of the three astronauts currently occupying the room who was up and about was Communications Officer Jack Peskie, who was preparing himself a sandwich in the kitchen area. Jack had been beside himself over the issue of the size of the living quarters before the mission began, desperately appealing to the STAR administrators that suffering from a lack of privacy for an entire year would be devastating for the crew. Jack had studied psychology as well as communications technology before being hired by STAR, and they usually took his opinions seriously. But Jack had lost the battle to convince them to build a larger ship with separate living areas for each astronaut, as the company had been suffering from budget problems for awhile (which many suspected was the real reason the Andromeda mission had been proposed in the first place) and simply could not spare the necessary funds to construct a ship of the size this design would require.
“Hey, Jack,” Arnold called to his communications officer as he made his way through the three rows of beds to the kitchen area. “Just to let you know, we’ll be making a slight manoeuvre in a moment.”
“Are we getting out of here early?” asked Jack. “Please say yes.”
“I wish, but it’s not possible yet,” Arnold replied. “We’re just pointing the ship in the direction we’re moving, so the black hole will be to the left of us. Lauren and I decided we’d rather not have to look at the thing anymore.”
“Not a bad idea,” said Jack. “That thing gives me the fucking creeps. Guess I’m not the only one.”
Arnold liked Jack for the most part. The communications officer was very easy to get along with, and always quick with a joke to lighten the air when tensions got too high. But sometimes his seeming inability to take anything seriously got on Arnold’s nerves, and recently tensions between the two men had begun to rise rather rapidly. Jack was never shy about vocalizing his dissent when he felt that Arnold made a command decision that might adversely affect the psychology of the crew, and Arnold no longer appreciated the advice as he had when the mission was just beginning. Yet Jack was smart enough to know when he was in danger of crossing the line, and so far there had been the bare minimum of shouting matches between the two of them. Considering that they had spent the better part of a year in practically the same room as one another, Arnold believed their relationship was actually in a far better condition than might be expected.
“Where’s Maria?” asked Arnold, noticing that the ship’s engineer was the only crewmember other than Lauren not currently in the living quarters.
“She’s in your office,” Jack answered, “reading one of her romance novels. Probably re-reading one actually, unless she managed to fit a thousand books into her personal luggage when she came on board.”
“Not even bothering to ask permission anymore?” Arnold remarked to himself.
“At this point you can’t really expect her to follow such a minor point of protocol,” said Jack.
“Obviously!” Arnold snapped.
“Sorry,” said Jack, holding up his arms.
Arnold shook his head and sighed. “No, I’m sorry. It’s just…I mean, some things go without saying, you know?”
“You’re right,” said Jack, and he brought his sandwich to the computer console on the left wall of the ship next to the garbage chute, and began searching through the music archives to put something on.
Arnold was thankful to see David O’Brian sleeping soundly in his bed in the middle of the room. The ship’s second pilot had been Arnold’s most vocal adversary throughout the entire mission, and the two loathed each other so openly that Arnold could not think of a single kind word that had ever passed between them.
David’s hatred of Arnold had formed long before the mission began. David had struggled all his life to make it to the rank of STAR Commander, and when STAR opened the campaign for the exploration of the Barnard’s Star system, he wanted command of that historic first mission more than he’d ever wanted anything in his life. But Arnold had been selected to command the mission, and David’s dream was shattered. He suffered a mental breakdown and struck a member of his own crew on his next mission, a routine supply-flight to the colony on Alpha Centauri VI. Not only did he suffer the humiliation of a demotion to the rank of pilot, but his wife felt she could no longer put up with her husband’s nearly constant anger, and she left him, taking his son with her. David blamed Arnold for everything, believing that he had been shown undue favouritism because his father had been such a hero to the company, and Arnold Junior had neither earned the rank of commander nor the privilege of leading the historic first mission to a new star system.
The administrators who made the decision that resulted in David’s mental breakdown must have felt somewhat guilty, as they would never have otherwise given an astronaut with a stained record a position on the crew of such a high-profile mission. Arnold suspected that they had believed that by including David on the crew they were making up for what they had done to him, and that his lingering anger over being passed over for one historic mission might be pacified by his inclusion on the crew of an even more historic mission. But much to Arnold’s chagrin, they had been grossly mistaken. David’s anger was beyond all hope of pacification at that point, and the fact that he was being forced to serve under the command of the man who had beaten him for the Barnard’s Star mission only fanned the flames.
David blamed Arnold for everything that had happened to him since the breakdown which had brought about his demotion and divorce, and throughout the mission he had been focussed more on making Arnold’s job as difficult as possible rather than actually serving as a productive member of the crew. David no longer even took orders from Arnold, and the only reason he had not been kicked off the crew was because of what had happened with Mark at the beginning of the mission. Arnold was completely certain that if he tried to discipline David in any way, the pilot would not only murder him, but perhaps every other crewmember as well. For all Arnold knew, David was already planning to do this, and was now just waiting for an opportunity.
Just then, Arnold heard the sound of a faint heartbeat growing louder, the ticking of a clock, and voices saying something about madness. Before he could figure out what the source of these noises was, he felt the ship begin to move, and realised Lauren was making the manoeuvre. He dropped to the floor and held onto the frame of the nearest bed, thinking he was losing his mind as the sound of a woman screaming came roaring into his ears and at last gave way to the sound of a familiar melody.
The ship stopped moving, and Arnold turned around to look at Jack, who was staring at him with a huge smile on his face. “Well, I couldn’t have timed that more perfectly, could I?” he said.
Arnold didn’t know whether to shout at the communications man or burst out laughing. Instead he simply rose to his feet and sighed. “Dark Side of the Moon again?”
“That’s right,” said Jack, “in honour of our friend over there.”
He motioned to the front of the living quarters, where Jason Floyd, the ship’s computer officer, was hunched into the corner against the outer wall and the wall of Arnold’s office. Like most of the other crewmembers of the Andromeda, Jason had grown up during a period of time in which 20th century rock music had regained enormous popularity, and he had been extremely fond of the band Pink Floyd, so much so that when he decided to change his last name as part of an effort to put his painful childhood behind him, he took the last name Floyd. It was an appropriate as well as a somewhat prophetic choice, as the theme of madness was prevalent in many of Pink Floyd’s most popular albums, and it was Jason’s misfortune of actually falling victim to madness during the mission. Although it had happened rather gradually, he had been pushed completely over the edge only several weeks earlier, and since that incident he had spent nearly all of his time in that corner with a vacant stare, unable to do much more than occasionally stumble into the bathroom or accept a meal that was offered to him.
It was painful for Arnold to see Jason like this, as the two had been close friends prior to the mission. They had served together on the mission to Barnard’s Star, Arnold having taken a liking to the intelligent and philosophical yet hopelessly depressed computer officer, and out of sympathy for the lonely soul had frequently invited him to spend time with his family at his home for the years following that mission. Jason had been the only member of the Andromeda crew with whom Arnold had been acquainted prior to the launch, and towards the beginning of the mission it had been a great comfort to have him around. But as time went on Jason began to behave ever more coldly towards him, which Arnold had not realised until recently was due to his having formed an intimate relationship with Lauren, with whom Jason had been secretly in love. Jason’s jealousy had poisoned their relationship, and he ceased talking to Arnold and began to confide exclusively in Elliot Larken, who understood a great deal more than Arnold about emotional pain. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Elliot’s death had hit Jason the hardest, and that it was a blow from which he would never fully recover.
Now, Arnold sat on a bed and stared at his former friend, who showed no sign of any awareness of being stared at, remembering the conversation they had had on Ring Station 4 on the day before the crew boarded their ship and began the long thrust towards Andromeda.
No matter how much I think about it I can’t get over the sheer magnitude of what we’re going to be accomplishing, Jason had said to him as they sat at a small table in one of the space-station’s many cafés.
Going to another galaxy is certainly a big deal, Arnold had replied.
It’s unfathomable! Jason exclaimed. Just think of all that distance we’re going to cover. Can you even really comprehend just how far it is we’re going?
Two million light-years, said Arnold.
Yeah, but what does that really mean? said Jason. I was reading an article about our mission on the web the other day that really put it in perspective. It said that if the sun were the size of a baseball, Earth would be the size of a small marble placed about two centimetres away from the baseball. Jupiter would be ten centimetres from the baseball, and Pluto would be eighty centimetres away. On that scale, how far do you think Alpha Centauri would be?
I don’t know, said Arnold. A thousand metres?
Good guess, Jason replied. It would actually be seven kilometres away.
And Andromeda? asked Arnold.
Andromeda would be three million kilometres away! Jason said emphatically. There’s not even enough room on Earth to represent that distance, even at such a minuscule scale.
Wow, said Arnold. That really does put it in perspective.
And that’s not the only thing I keep thinking about, said Jason. We’ve barely even explored our own galaxy. We don’t even know yet if there are other intelligent species out there, so for all we know, humanity might be the only one. And if we really are the only beings in the universe with consciousness, that means this galaxy is the only part of the universe of which anything has had any awareness. Galaxies formed something like ten billion years ago. So it might be that Andromeda has sat there for ten billion years, unseen from the inside by anything, until we get there. This might not just be a breakthrough for humanity, but a first for the entire universe!
You really think that there are no other forms of intelligent life out there? asked Arnold, who had always admired the depth of Jason’s thoughts.
No, said Jason. Personally, I think that in a galaxy twice as big as the Milky-Way there’s bound to be at least one planet where intelligence has had a chance to evolve. I’m just saying that for all we know at this point, it’s possible the entire galaxy is dead and lifeless, and we’ll be the first conscious beings to exist there. And to think that I am actually going to be one of those privileged few to see it…when I was a kid I never would have thought in a million years…not in a million years…Jason’s voice trailed off and they finished their lunch in silent contemplation.
Jason had only shared the details of his childhood with Arnold once, but it was a miserable story to which Arnold had not quite known how to react. Jason had never known his father, and his mother Valerie had died when he was only ten years old. His only living relative had been his aunt, who was a devout Christian, fanatical about her religion and who had never forgiven his mother for allowing herself to get pregnant without being married and raising the child on her own. She hated Jason both for the sin he represented and for the obligation of raising him that had been forced upon her. As he grew up, Jason was abused both mentally and physically by this woman, taught to hate men and to hate himself because he was a man. As a result, Jason had never had a relationship with a woman, thinking he could only be a burden to any woman he might try to get close to.
Instead, Jason would fall deeply in love with those who were out of reach, and remain fixated on them from afar for absurdly long periods of time. Though he had never told Arnold, the most serious and longest enduring case of unrequited love he had ever known had been with Lauren, whom he had known since high school and in whom he had recognised a deep emotional turmoil without ever knowing its source. He had grown up in the same neighbourhood as Lauren but never so much as introduced himself to her, and although they had both chosen the same career (there was something about being an astronaut that appealed to those who wished to escape from a traumatic childhood) the two had never been friends. He had kept his love for Lauren to himself for decades and for most of the mission as well, until one day all of that pent-up emotion finally erupted, and he could no longer hide it.
It was David O’Brian who had sparked it. He had been giving Lauren a hard time from the moment she had entered into her relationship with Arnold, at first merely making snide remarks to Arnold about how it was a conflict of interest for commanders to date members of their own crew but eventually taking to insult both of them openly, calling Lauren a whore and repeatedly accusing Arnold of sodomizing her. Things got especially bad when he began fucking the engineer, Maria Wendall, shortly after her second boyfriend of the mission, Ronald Stark, took ill with the virus and died. Although she had detested David as much as the rest of the crew, Maria could not handle being alone and since none of the other male survivors would have her, David was her only option. Maria had disliked Lauren from the beginning, mistaking the pilot’s shyness as arrogance, and with David encouraging her, it did not take long for this casual dislike to inflate into open hostility.
One day, when the ship was deep into the long, arduous return home through the vast, desolate emptiness between the galaxies, Maria became so abusive of Lauren that instead of simply absorbing it as she usually did, she shouted back and Maria slapped her in the face with such force that it made Lauren’s nose bleed. David laughed hysterically at this, and Jason lost control. His hatred of David had already been growing for quite some time due to his incessant verbal abuse of Lauren, but seeing him laughing at her pain at that moment finally pushed him over the edge and he erupted. Jason’s attack was so unexpected and ferocious that David had no chance to defend himself. If Jack and Arnold had not stopped him, Jason would almost certainly have killed David.
It must have been the most awful moment of Jason’s life. Sitting on the floor next to David’s unconscious body, blood spattered all over his face and gasping for breath while the other four crewmembers, Lauren included, looked on him in astonishment.
Have you lost your mind? Arnold finally asked. What in the hell brought that on?
Jason stared at Arnold with a horrified look in his eyes, still trying to catch his breath, and then he finally turned to Lauren. I love you, he said, as though confessing to a murder. I fucking love you, Lauren. I have since high school. Fuck…
Everyone then turned to look at Lauren, who was clearly more uncomfortable than she had ever been in her life, but she knew she had no choice but to reply. I know, she finally said. I’ve known how you felt about me since high school. I’m sorry…
And with that, the last thin thread holding Jason’s mind together finally snapped. Lauren had confirmed what he had always feared, what he bad been so afraid of that he had kept his love a secret for all those years: that Lauren knew how he felt but did not feel the same way. That she did not love him, and never would. The hope that they might one day be together, however infinitesimal and unrealistic that hope was, had been the only thing keeping Jason going for most of his adult life. Once that hope was finally shattered, Jason’s entire mental foundation collapsed, and he went completely insane.
Now the only indication that there was anything going on in Jason’s mind at all was the movement of his eyes as they responded to the music. Clearly, something was getting through, even if it was only very abstract. Jason may not have been thinking in any coherent manner, but he was definitely feeling something. During the guitar solo from the song “Time” his eyes began to water up, and a pang of remorse shot through Arnold. But this feeling was quickly replaced by a familiar anger. Arnold had been building up a growing resentment towards Jason for not having told him from the beginning that he was in love with Lauren, and letting their friendship die rather than face the conflict like a man.
“Hey, commander,” Arnold’s thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the sound of Jack Peskie’s voice behind him. Arnold swung around, knowing something must be wrong if the communications officer was calling him by his rank and not his first name.
“What is it, Jack?” asked Arnold.
“Not to alarm you or anything,” said Jack, “but does that wall seem a little more…I don’t know…indented than usual?”
At first Arnold didn’t understand what Jack was saying to him. But he turned to look at the left wall of the living quarters and understood immediately. The wall which was normally completely flat seemed to be bulging outward now, forming a circular indentation at the exact centre about three meters in diameter. An intense pang of anxiety shot through Arnold.
“Maria!” he shouted, rising to his feet and walking to the door of his office. “Maria,” he called again as he opened the door and saw that his engineer was sitting on his chair with her bare-feet on his desk , reading the same romance novel she must have read five times already on the mission.
“Jesus, Arnold,” said Maria. “You look terrible. What’s going on?”
“I need you out here immediately,” said Arnold, resisting his impulse to reprimand her for using his office without permission.
“Can it at least wait until I finish this chapter?” she asked.
“No, absolutely not!” Arnold shouted.
“What’s wrong with you, Arnold?” said Maria, as she put her book down and slipped back into her shoes. “You’d think after the all the shit we’ve been through on this mission you would have gotten that stick out of your ass by now.”
Arnold bit his tongue and stepped back into the living quarters, where he regretted to see his shouting had woken up David O’Brian.
“What the fuck is going on?” the pilot yawned and farted as he sat up in his bed.
“Take a look at the wall,” said Jack, who felt suddenly compelled to turn up the volume on the computer speakers just as “The Great Gig in the Sky” began to play.
David’s eyes widened immediately as he noticed the indentation in the wall, which was getting larger by the second. “Holy shit,” he said, and reached into the compartment under his bed to pull out some clothes.
Maria entered the living quarters and immediately noticed the anomaly. “Oh no, Arnold,” she said. “Let me guess. When I felt the ship move just now…that was us turning away from the black hole, right?”
“Yes,” said Arnold, who suddenly understood the error.
“The cockpit window can handle that gravity,” Maria explained, in spite of the fact that everyone else had already figured it out. “It’s thick, reinforced glass panelling. But the walls in these living quarters are barely two centimetres thick. Those gravitational forces are no joke. They’re a serious strain on the material.”
Jack leaned back in the computer chair as David passed him to enter the kitchen area to prepare a snack. “And I am not frightened of dying,” he said in unison with the voice in the song. “Any time will do, I don’t mind.”
“This fucking album again?” David remarked.
“Why should I be frightened of dying?” Jack spoke louder. “There’s no reason, for it—you got to go sometime.”
“Can we reinforce the wall?” Arnold asked Maria. “Or should we just make another manoeuvre and get the ship pointed away from the black hole? It couldn’t tear out the engine, could it?”
“Just point the ship the way it was facing before,” Maria said as she grabbed a scanning device from a box under her bed. “In the mean-time I’m going to see how long this wall will hold. We might not have time to get the computer to do it. Your bitch might have to do it manually right away.”
Maria walked up to the wall and held out her scanner to determine its strength, while Arnold walked over to the door of the cockpit to let Lauren know what was going on. Then, just as the gentle piano solo from the beginning of the song gave way to the high-intensity vocal section, the three-metre indentation in the wall ripped away, and Maria was instantly sucked out into the void.
Pure terror shot through the hearts of the three sane crewmembers in the living quarters who were witness to the hull breech, a feeling intensified tenfold by the image now revealed. Through the gaping hole in the wall, with nothing between it and the astronauts but a light-year of void, was the super-massive black hole.
Arnold Juciper had been in an emergency situation before, on one of his first missions almost ten years earlier, when his ship’s navigation computer had fried during the delicate procedure of establishing an orbit around Alpha Centauri. In that situation, the problem had to be solved before the ship came too close to the star, but there had been a comfortable window of time in which to come up with a solution, and it had been easy to put the danger out of his mind and focus on the task at hand. This situation was infinitely worse, and despite all of Arnold’s years of experience, he came dangerously close to panicking.
As the suction from the escaping atmosphere dropped him to the ground, he grabbed hold of a bed frame and tried desperately to think clearly. But his head was spinning uncontrollably and all that seemed to register in his brain was the sound of the intense vocal solo from “The Great Gig in the Sky.”
But looking up, he was able to see Jack Peskie climbing to the right wall of the ship where the supply closet was located, and Arnold’s mind instantly snapped back into place. The situation was dire, but not necessarily fatal. The ship’s atmosphere generators would automatically switch themselves to their maximum capacity to compensate for the amount being lost, and though it would not be able to keep this up for very long Arnold estimated they would have at least five minutes before the air became too thin to breathe. This would also reduce the force of suction brought about by the escaping atmosphere, though it could not eliminate it completely.
Arnold turned to make sure that Jason was secure, and saw that the computer officer was still hunched into the corner, the force of the suction not great enough to drag him out. But he noticed that Jason’s back was no longer against the wall of Arnold’s office, but against the left wall, and he seemed to be lying down as though that wall were the floor. It took a moment before Arnold realised what was happening.
The physics of the situation were a bit complicated, but Arnold remembered enough from his emergency training to understand basically what was going on. Because the hull of the Explorer model spaceship also generated the inertial field which was responsible for the artificial downward gravitational force, any breech in the hull would thereby damage the inertial field. The closer to the breech, the greater the distortion. So while Arnold was far enough away that the floor still seemed like it was below him, the floor was not pulling on Jason as hard as the gravitational force of the black hole which lay behind the wall he was currently lying against. The inertial field would also have almost no effect in the direct line of fire from the breech, the three-meter section along the floor which lay between the second and third row of beds. Crossing that gap would be extremely dangerous, but if he wanted to get to the supply closet, Arnold knew that he would have to.
All this took only a few seconds to figure out, and while the intense vocal solo continued to blast through the speakers, Arnold made his way to the right-most of the four columns of beds and prepared to cross the living quarters. As he walked, he clearly had the sensation that he was climbing up-hill, and he knew that he could not count on the pull of the floor to keep him from sliding out of the ship, especially as he got closer to the line of fire. He would have to readjust his sense of up-and-down, and use the beds as though they were ledges. When he reached the first column of beds, he got to his hands and knees, and crawled along the floor, the inertial force from which he could feel growing weaker as he reached the end of the first row of beds. It was two meters between the first and second row of beds, and Arnold made sure he had a firm grip on the second bed-post before shoving himself across the gap. Now the floor was no longer a floor at all but it seemed to be a wall, and Arnold crawled along the side of the bed, working up the nerve to cross the next gap.
As he reached the edge of the bed and prepared to cross the line of fire, he thought he heard Lauren’s voice from behind him, but the sound of the atmosphere pouring into the living quarters and being sucked out of the ship, as well as the volume of the music, made it impossible for him to discern what she was saying. He took a deep breath and reached out to grab the next bed frame, but was unprepared for the force he encountered, and he heard Lauren scream as he was pulled out from behind the bed and tumbled down along the floor towards the gaping hole in the wall. But he managed to grab hold of the second bed-frame from the top, and using every bit of strength he could gather against the black hole’s gravity, he pulled himself up and rested safely on the other side.
Arnold took a moment to catch his breath before turning around and making the climb to the supply closet. Over the sound of the vocal solo and the atmosphere’s continuous generation and escape, he thought he heard Lauren shouting his name. Had she thought he had fallen out of the ship? Did she not realise he was okay?
But when he turned his head around he suddenly understood what that shout had been for, as a new and even greater terror had just presented itself. There, waiting for him at the edge of the bed against which he had just propped himself, was David O’Brian. There was an evil smile on his lips, a menacing fire in his eyes, and a very large, sharp knife in his hand. A few meters away he saw Jack Peskie lying on the ground by the supply closet, blood pouring from his shoulder.
“Hello, commander,” said David, and he grabbed Arnold by the arm and dragged him to his end of the bed, where the floor began to feel more like a floor again, and pressed the knife up against Arnold’s throat. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”
Arnold’s dark suspicion had been accurate. David had just been waiting for the right opportunity to kill him, and when the hull was breached he must have realised immediately that this was the perfect time to do it. He could kill everyone on board and fly the ship back to Earth alone, blaming the black hole for the deaths of the remaining three crewmembers. Nobody would ask any questions, and David would take all of the glory of the successful completion of the Andromeda mission for himself.
“You’re going to get yourself killed too, David,” Arnold managed to say, barely hearing the sound of his own voice. “If you try to kill us there won’t be enough time to fix the hull before we run out of air.”
“I can hold my breath for a long fucking time,” David snarled. “But you’re about to breathe your last.”
“Then what the fuck are you waiting for?” Arnold’s anger had very quickly overcome his better judgment. “Do it then!”
“Oh, I will,” said David. “But I’ve been waiting for this far too long to just slice your throat without torturing you a bit first. There are a few things I want you know before I kill you.”
David suddenly raised Arnold’s head from the ground and pointed it at the next bed, where Arnold was horrified to see Lauren crawling toward them, her face red with anger and her eyes wet with tears. “Lauren, no!” Arnold shouted, but she was too overwhelmed by the horror of the situation to think clearly, and as she tried to leap across the line of fire to get at him and David, the gravity tore her down towards the hole in the wall.
David laughed as Arnold screamed in horror, but luckily Lauren was able to grab the next bed and pull herself back to safety, though she was now completely drained of energy and still separated from them by the line of fire. It was then that the first section of the song, the high-intensity vocal solo, changed over to the second section, a bit softer but loaded with powerful emotion
“Aw,” said David. “I was hoping you’d get to watch her die. But don’t worry…she doesn’t have long. I’ll send her after you as soon as I’m done with you. You’ll meet at the singularity down there at the centre of that black hole. It’s almost romantic, isn’t it?”
“Fuck you, David,” Arnold barked, although he was now genuinely afraid. David had him at a fatal disadvantage, and he knew he would already have been dead if not for the pilot’s years of pent-up rage and hatred.
“Fuck you, Arnold,” David shouted. “It’s all fucking over for you, but like I said there are a few things I’ve been dying to tell you before I take your life. I want you to know that I ruined you, just like you ruined me. That I was the one who took this mission from you, just like you took the mission that should have been mine from me. And so I’ll tell you this now, because I’ve got to confess it to someone and you think you’re God anyway, so here it goes: that mysterious illness that Lily came down with when we first got into Andromeda—it wasn’t a disease. It was a poison.”
Arnold felt as though his body had just been instantly frozen, as the fiery anger that had been burning inside of him was suddenly replaced with a deep, ice-cold rage. David continued to speak, each word tearing at Arnold’s mind and expanding the rage inside of him. “I injected her with a poison I made from her own medical supplies,” David said. “It was so easy. You were all asleep while I was on duty in the cockpit. I couldn’t have planned it any better either, because Elliot ignored protocol and held her the next day. So I injected him with the poison that night, and then watched as you all had to deal with figuring out who to give the heart transplant to! Everything worked out better than I could have ever planned. Elliot killed himself, and thanks to your incompetence, Todd was lost during the space-walk. I had the perfect excuse to give Ronald the disease once that failed operation got him splattered with Lily’s blood, and the next thing I knew all four medical officers—the only people on the ship who might have figured out what was really going on—were dead! It was perfect! And as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, the operation probably wouldn’t have failed if I hadn’t made that course correction during the most difficult part of the procedure, throwing Ronald’s hand off. I did that deliberately. There was no need for a course correction! I told all of you we might have collided with a star, but we weren’t even going to come within two light-years of a star!
“But do you want to know the best part?” David continued. “I’m only really responsible for the deaths of Ronald and Lily. You’ve lost over half your crew, but most of it was your fault. And now poor Maria is dead and it’s your fault as well for turning the ship and getting the wall torn open. You lost Todd to the black hole in Andromeda because you weren’t paying attention. You lost Elliot because you didn’t realise how serious he was when he refused the operation to try to ensure Lily’s survival. And I’m sure you’ll never forget how your unbelievably stupid decision to kick Mark off the crew caused him to murder Craig and kill himself. That’s five deaths you’re responsible for, and only two to me…three if you count Jack over there. Once I’ve taken care of you, Lauren and Jason, it might seem like I’ll come out on top. But you know that’s not really the case, don’t you?
“The truth is, you’re responsible for all of their deaths, because you’re responsible for driving to me to murder in the first place. You and your privileged fucking status. If you didn’t have the same name as your fucking father, you’d still be some bullshit communications officer. You’d probably still be some schmuck in the mission control room, just hoping for one day to have a chance to actually be on the crew of an interstellar mission. You’re that bad at your job, Arnold. That fact that you lost five of your own crewmembers proves it. And once I take this ship back to Earth alone, I’ll make sure everyone knows it. They’ll know what really happened to Mark and Craig. They’ll know every fucking mistake you made.”
David’s voice was rising now to the point where he almost seemed strained to speak. Inside him was a rage so deep that the anger Arnold felt now paled in comparison. David had been practicing this speech in his mind for months, possibly even years, and now that it was finally being released, more pain and frustration than Arnold had felt in his lifetime were suddenly bubbling to the surface. The voice from the song said, “I never said I was frightened of dying.”
laughed. “Everyone will realise that STAR should never have
given someone like you the honour of commanding the first mission to
Barnard’s Star, let alone the fucking Andromeda galaxy! I’ll
be the hero, the one they’ll all worship, because I’ll be the one
who survived—who managed to get this ship back home in spite of all
the stupid, misguided, bone-headed fucking moves of Commander Arnold
fucking Juciper, who nearly brought the entire mission to the brink
of complete and utter failure thanks to his overwhelming…fucking…incompeten
Arnold had had enough. David may have hated him with a passion he could not fathom, but Arnold had his own rage, as he understood finally that most of the guilt from which he had been suffering throughout the mission had not been from his own mistakes, but provoked by David O’Brian because of his woefully misdirected anger. Suddenly, all of that rage burst forth from Arnold, as all concerns about the knife to his throat were forgotten and he caught David completely off guard with a roar and a thrust backwards, shoving the pilot off of him and sending him sliding back several meters across the floor.
David leapt to his feet and lunged at Arnold again with the knife, but he tripped over something, and Arnold had only an instant to notice that it was Jack Peskie’s leg. The communications officer was still alive and conscious, and with what little strength he had, had managed to send David toppling over and to the ground at the side of the bed an inch away from Arnold. Before David had a chance to raise the knife again, Arnold reached over to grab David’s right arm, but apparently the crazed pilot had momentarily lost all concern for his own safety, and he flung the knife to the back of the ship. Before Arnold had a chance to brace himself, David lunged forward with overwhelming force, and sent both of them flying backwards past the inner edge of the bed and into the line of fire.
Arnold fell down and across the gap, managing to grab hold of the next bed frame. Looking down he saw that if he fell any further there was only one more row of beds between him and the void. He doubted he would have enough strength to grab hold of one before falling straight out of the hole and down towards the super-massive black hole which was beckoning him from across the abyss. He doubted he even had enough strength to pull himself up and over to the side of the bed from which he now hung. Looking up he saw David hanging onto the frame of the bed which they had just been lying against, struggling to pull himself up.
“Arnold!” he heard Lauren shout, and looked up to see that she was kneeling on the edge of the bed to which he was clutching, her face still tortured by fear. “Hang on, honey!”
She wrapped her hands around Arnold’s wrists and tried to pull him up, but she clearly could do little on her own. Arnold would have to help her, and he struggled with every remaining ounce of his strength to pull himself up so she could help him over. He tried to put all other thoughts out of his mind and focus only on his love for this woman. It was strong enough to overcome any force in the universe—even the pull of the super-massive black hole that was now trying to tear them apart. He looked up and as their eyes met, he felt as though a new energy was rising within him.
But suddenly she tore her eyes away and looked up to the bed from which David was hanging. Arnold turned around to see what was going on, and didn’t know whether to feel relief or horror at the sight of Jack Peskie pounding on David’s hands and tearing at his fingers, trying to force the pilot to release his grip and fall to his death. David must have known that he was beaten. He couldn’t pull himself up now that Jack was there, and even if he didn’t fall out of the ship and somehow managed to survive, he could not go on living after failing to destroy Arnold.
And so he released himself, and with one final cry of unspeakable rage and anger, he flung himself across the gap and grabbed Arnold as he fell. Arnold was torn from Lauren’s arms, and with David clutching at his waist he could not secure a hold on the next bed frame. So they both fell straight through the hole on the side of the ship and out into the vacuum of space.
Yet by some miracle, Arnold was able to catch hold of the bottom of the torn wall just above the floor, and broke his descent. David slid down Arnold’s legs but still managed to hang on. Arnold gasped for breath, but the air escaping from the ship would allow him to keep breathing for at least another minute or so before suffocating. David, however, who was now clinging to Arnold’s ankles, fully aware of his imminent doom, was too far away for any of the escaping air to save him. David’s grip was already weakening, and Arnold looked down to catch one final glimpse of David O’Brian, staring at him with a look of such hatred and despair that Arnold actually felt his heart stop beating.
Then at last, David’s life passed out of him, his grip released, and he fell. He would be falling for days, his frozen corpse accelerating faster and faster as he approached the galactic core. When he finally got close enough, the black hole’s tremendous energy would rip him apart, stretching the atoms of his body into a thin strand which would spiral through the event horizon and finally be packed him into the singularity at its core. For the rest of its time in existence, the Milky-Way galaxy would be revolving around him.
Arnold now prepared himself to suffer the same fate, as he knew he no longer had any strength left and would not be able to overcome the pull of the black hole and lift himself back to the ship. He looked up and there was Lauren, kneeling against the wall of the ship and again grabbing hold of his wrists, trying desperately to pull her lover back on board but accomplishing nothing. As he stared at her tormented face, a feeling of overwhelming agony at the circumstances of his own death took hold of Arnold, and pain wrenched his gut so violently that it nearly broke his grip on the ledge. Such a cruel death, to literally be torn from the hands of the one you love by a force against which you are hopeless to overcome.
For a moment Arnold thought of his daughter Rachael, and how devastated she was going to be when she learned of her father’s death and realised that the sacrifice she had made to give up her mother and all her friends to be able to be with him after the mission had been in vain. This was enough to drain the last bit of strength in Arnold’s fingers away, and he began to slip.
But just before he let go completely, Arnold noticed someone moving very quickly inside the ship behind Lauren. It was Jason Floyd, who had climbed out of his corner and was now tying something to the edge of a bed frame just above the hole. Could it be that he had just regained his sanity at that critical moment? Before Arnold had a chance to fathom what was going on, Jason leaped directly out of the ship and fell beyond Arnold, who could hardly believe what he was seeing. But at that point he could no longer hold onto the ledge, and he finally slipped from the ship and fell freely down towards the black hole below.
And then, suddenly, his fall was broken. Jason, who was dangling at the end of an electronic rope machine, had caught him as he fell, and was now using the machine to reel both of them back towards the ship. There was absolutely no air to breathe, and Arnold felt himself rapidly losing body heat and pressure as the vacuum took its toll on them, but the rope was reeling itself in quickly enough, and before he knew it Jason was shoving Arnold’s body back into the ship, where he collapsed against the side of the wall, and found that he barely had enough energy to turn around and witness what was now going on.
Both Jack and Lauren were kneeling beside the hole, each clutching one of Jason’s arms and pulling him back aboard the ship. Jack must have regained enough strength in the mean-time to make it to the supply closet, because as soon as Jason was safely back inside, he slid a circular panel five meters in diameter over the breach in the hull and began using a laser-torch to seal it in place. Once this was done, the inertia-field reconfigured itself, and all four astronauts slid from the wall to the actual floor of the ship. Lauren was so overwhelmed with relief that she actually slid herself over to Jason, who was now completely drained of energy and lying on the floor next to Arnold, and kissed him directly on his lips.
eyes met Jason’s, which were now wet with tears, and in that instant
it was as though a thousand un-spoken words passed between them.
Then finally, satisfied that the crisis was over, Arnold released the
firm grip with which he had been holding onto his consciousness, and
22 days (or 284,254 years) later, the Andromeda re-entered the solar system and slowed down to a time-scale rate of 1 second per second for the final time. Also for the final time, Jack Peskie re-opened a communications channel with the STAR Corporation, which was not to be broken again for the remainder of the mission. That moment officially marked the astronauts’ arrival at the time period in which they would now be living—the year 5,211,292.
While the astronauts had been gone, the human race had expanded well beyond the three star systems it had occupied when they left, and now spanned the entire Milky-Way galaxy. The STAR Corporation served as the governing force of this entire territory, and the C.E.O. of the Corporation was the man in charge of it all. And it was this C.E.O.—a man by the name of Brian Davis—who delivered the official “Welcome Home” message to the Andromeda crew when they returned, which was broadcast around the galaxy to uncountable trillions of human ears.
The speech itself might have been written millions of years prior, as it contained no specific details about the mission that the crew had reported to STAR during its periods of transmission, and did not even allude to the fact that three-quarters of its original crew had died. It was simply an ode to the incredible accomplishment that these astronauts had made, and a tribute to the vision of those who launched the mission millions of years prior. The essential idea seemed to be that it was a testament to the glory of the STAR Corporation that even at its humble beginnings during the birth of interstellar travel, it not only dared to reach so far as the next galaxy, but that it could actually accomplish such an incredible feat. “With merely the knowledge and the will,” Brian Davis had said, “there is nothing we cannot do.”
But if the astronauts themselves had ever shared such sentiments, they certainly did not feel them at that moment. The speech had seemed far more for the benefit of its audience than for them. The people of the Milky-Way were very excited over the astronauts’ return, each feeling lucky to be among the one generation in thousands to live during the conclusion of the longest and most ambitious mission ever launched by mankind. But the astronauts who actually flew the mission were too weary and grief-stricken over the various losses they had suffered to pay much heed to the value of their accomplishment. Jason Floyd—who had now regained control over his mental faculties—had already begun to question the idea that what they had done had any value at all.
But something seemed to change in theirs hearts nine days later, when the Andromeda re-established orbit with the Earth, and they were finally able to see their home planet again after an entire year away from it. Though they had seen so many awe-inspiring sights during their mission, including entire galaxies spinning before them, to their eyes the Earth was the most beautiful sight of them all. Only then did they begin to feel that they really had done something incredible. From that one tiny rock they had departed five million years beforehand, crossed a distance beyond their mind’s true capacity to comprehend, and returned again to that same tiny rock, one speck of dust in a gargantuan universe, yet the only speck that they could truly call home. Though most would come to feel differently later on, at that moment they all felt as though they never wanted to leave that speck again.
The final manoeuvre of their mission was an unexpected change in the flight-plan ordered by Brian Davis. Their time at the black hole had damaged more than just the hull. Their docking port had been torn apart, which made it impossible for their ship to dock with a space station as the original flight-plan had called for. And the emergency-landing pod had been completely torn from its port and swallowed by the black hole during the incident, so they could not use that to make a re-entry. As Brian Davis saw it, the only option was to bring the entire ship down through the atmosphere and land it. But because the ship had been built in space and was never designed to make a planetary landing, the astronauts would have to splash it down in the water off the Florida coast and swim out through the airlock as the ship sank.
Arnold objected to this plan, saying it was too dangerous and they had not come all this way to die on the last leg of their mission. But Brian Davis would not take any other suggestions once he had made up his mind, and he rapidly grew impatient with Arnold for presuming to question his judgment. That was the first indication the astronauts had that while humanity on the surface seemed to have changed very little during their five-million year absence, there were some deeper things that had become dramatically different.
And so Lauren took the controls for the final time, and executed a perfect splash-down in waters off the coast of Florida. There was a profound sadness in their hearts as the water immediately began pouring into the ship, and they were all forced to abandon the place that had been their home for the past year—as terrible a year as it had been. There were boats waiting to pick them up, and the moment they landed on the shore, they were greeted by a crowd of hundreds of thousands assembled to witness their return. They were brought to a small stage that had been erected on the shore, and the C.E.O. was there to greet each of them with a hand-shake and a fake smile.
Brian Davis delivered another speech, this one actually mentioning those who had lost their lives to help make the mission a success—Craig Malls, Mark Staff, Elliot Larken, Todd Blankens, Lily Zaw, Ronald Stark, Maria Wendall, and David O’Brian. Arnold was forced once again to think of how many of those deaths he was personally responsible for, and he winced at the mention of David’s name—David O’Brian had done anything but help make the mission a success—but there was no use explaining this now. The image of David’s face as he stared into Arnold’s eyes just before falling to his death flashed before his mind again as it had done thousands of times since the incident, but he pushed it away just as Brian Davis turned to invite him to say a few words.
Arnold declined, but the crowds roared in protest. At last he gave in and stepped up to the microphone, saying only the words: “Thank you. Really, it’s an honour. Thank you so much.” The applause he received just from those ten words was louder than any he had ever heard in his life, and went on without fading for at least ten solid minutes. It was this moment in which Arnold realised that in spite of all the mistakes he had made, the grief he carried, and the pain he had endured, he was now the most beloved man in the entire galaxy.
In contrast with the year spent aboard the Andromeda, the next year seemed to pass by in a flash for Arnold Juciper. He moved back into the same house in which he had lived before the mission, which had been perfectly preserved by STAR during his absence and had actually been a small source of revenue for the corporation, which charged people simply to come look at it. Four months later, he was married to Lauren, and though he had wished to have a small, quiet wedding, the story of the Andromeda commander’s marriage to its pilot was talked about throughout the Milky-Way, and the STAR Corporation insisted on paying for a grand ceremony with thousands of guests. Finally, exactly a year after the splash-down, a shuttle carrying all of the astronauts from the Andromeda II touched down on a runway outside STAR Headquarters, and Arnold was re-united with his daughter Rachael, with hundreds of cameras there to capture the moment.
And so two years after sacrificing everything for the sake of a mission, Arnold Juciper found that he had lost very little, but had in fact gained a great deal. Only his first wife Ellen was permanently removed from his life, though she had fallen out of love with him years before he had agreed to command the Andromeda, for the same reason his mother had come to resent his father. But now Arnold had a wife, a daughter, and a beautiful home, as well as the love and admiration of nearly every human being in the galaxy.
Eventually, he knew, it would all pass away. He would enjoy the fruits of his success while they lasted, but no matter how long he lived, his body would inevitably die, and the atoms which composed it would take other forms and spread throughout the world and the galaxy, spinning for trillions upon trillions of years until the far-distant future at the last dying days of the universe. He had spared himself for the time being, but as he always remained aware, everything that had once been Arnold Juciper would eventually return to the galactic core and at last be devoured by the super-massive black hole that remained there waiting for him.