Cory was conducting another sweep of the void in search of any contacts in the area of space where what Krista called “the indiscriminate drive” deposited the ship.
“Nothing, Captain. No coalescent bodies of any kind. I’m only reading dust and hydrogen gas. Impossible to tell our location in relation to the Solar System without a frame of reference.”
“That’s fine, Mr. McKenzie. Continue scans until further notice.”
Captain Forest Quinn volunteered to command the experimental jump drive vessel Kingfisher, Elon Musk III’s brain child. In theory, a ship equipped with the Tesla drive could instantaneously jump from one point in space to another using a virtual point-to-point link through subspace. All of the unmanned probes including a quarter-sized model of the Kingfisher jumped to specific coordinates between fifty and three-hundred light years from Earth and returned safely by virtue of their AI guidance systems.
However, when Forest ordered the activation of the Tesla jump, the ship shimmered and then winked out of existence in high orbit above Mars only to reappear in a completely unexpected region of space. The first event resulted in the ship being translated some 15,000 light years away from the Sextans Dwarf, one of the Milky Way’s companion galaxies. The AI recalculated the algorithmic settings required for a return to the Solar System only to relocate them within a thousand light years of Sagittarius A, the super-massive black hole at the center of their galaxy and a hotbed of extreme radiation and gravitational forces. Seconds from destruction, the AI initiated an emergency jump which landed them…
Sitting in his command chair on the Bridge, the Captain of the ill-fated Kingfisher waited for some indication of where they where or at least a report on what went wrong.
“If Musk wasn’t in such a damn hurry to run a manned test of ol’ indiscriminate, maybe he would have discovered why it doesn’t work the same way as on the quarter-sized model.” Krista Dixon was Forest’s Exec and Engineering Officer but the Tesla drive was a mystery to her. It was sealed in a “black box” container as was the AI nav computer and no one outside of Musk and his Design Team had ever seen its guts.
“Any update from the AI why we ended up in this mess?” He was aware his tone wasn’t inspiring confidence from the crew, but it had been a long time since he had been a hotshot test pilot and fighter jockey.
“Nothing. As far as I can tell, the whole thing could be run by a Nintendo game console or a pirated copy of Windows 10.” Her knowledge of ancient tech was as impressive as what she knew about modern spacecraft.
Quinn noted indications of sarcasm in her voice and facial expression, but it was the matching Burgundy dyed hair, contact lenses, and lip gloss that defined her presence. She was half his age and he would never understand her generation’s devotion to garishness. He’d have bet a week’s salary that her left foot was the same color too.
“Still nothing within scanner range, Captain.” Cory was a model of efficiency just as was Krista and the rest of the crew, but he chose to have his face and hands tinged the exact shade of a sequoia grove. Forest stood out among the others only because his hair and body styles were selected from the 1960s Americana catalog, which wasn’t particularly in vogue just now.
“Do we dare make another jump?”
“It can’t be any worse than where we are now.”
The comm crackled to life, “This is Cortez down in the Medical Bay. I’ve been monitoring your conversation and I have to strongly disagree. The radiation exposure we picked up in the Sagittarius A region would have reached lethal levels within thirty-two minutes if we’d stayed, even with the EM shields at full output. Our immediate environment is safe for an indefinite period of time or as long as our power and supplies last. Recommend we stay here until we have a good reason to initiate the drive again.”
“Quinn, here.” He leaned over the mic built into his chair. “Acknowledged your recommendation, Doctor. We’ll sit tight for now. Captain out.”
He released the comm switch and turned back to the Engineer. “Get back on the AI interface and see if you can coax anything out of it. Feed it the telemetry of the successful Tesla probes and have it run a comparison. If it can’t take us home, maybe it can be teased into revealing why it screwed up in the first place.”
She sighed. Opened her mouth to say something, closed it again. Waited a few seconds and replied, “Aye, Sir,” then pivoted on one foot and resumed her station.
Regardless of how Krista prodded the AI interface, it gave up nothing except that it was in standby mode and awaiting the next command to initiate the drive.
Two weeks saturated with both anxiety and boredom passed and then Cory found something new. “Captain, we’ve entered a region of increasing radiation. Shields have automatically activated.”
“Maneuver us back the way we came, Ms. Gill.”
Luz checked the Kingfisher’s manual nav console. “Sir, I still have no point of reference from which to derive direction. I can’t tell if we’ve been drifting, and if so from where or to where.”
“Just fire forward thrusters then and back us up.”
Cory piped in. “It won’t make any difference, Captain. As far as I can tell, it’s coming from all around us and increasing.”
“Cortez in the Med Bay. Measuring radiation from down here. If it keeps increasing at this rate, I estimate fatal exposure in twelve minutes.”
“What the hell happened, Cory? What’s out there?”
“Still reading inert stellar dust and hydrogen gas, Captain. I don’t have an explanation.”
“Krista, get ready to initiate a jump. In less than twelve minutes, anyplace we end up will be preferable to here.”
“Acknowledged, Captain. AI is calculating jump coordinates now. Estimating jump in sixty-two seconds.”
“Cortez here. Reading a sudden spike in rad count. Fatal exposure in three minutes.”
“Forty-one seconds until jump.”
“Rads increasing exponentially. It’s going to be close.”
“Damnit, Krista. Manual override. Jump blind if you have to but do it now!”
“Aye. Here goes.”
The Kingfisher suddenly wasn’t there anymore but then where was it?
“Congratulations, Captain Quinn. You and your crew passed the simulation.”
The face and voice of the wealthiest man in the Solar System appeared from the viewscreen.
“Mr. Musk? Then we made it. We’re back.”
“Actually Captain, you never left. You’re still in synchronous orbit above the Acidalia Planitia region of Mars.”
Everyone on the Bridge turned to Quinn looking for some explanation and then back to the main viewscreen.
“You see, the Tesla drive has a few bugs I’ve yet to work out so it’s possible that the first human piloted mission might experience some hiccups such as the ones that have been simulated for you. Yes, we’ve had full control of your sensors for the past several weeks feeding you inputs to create the necessary conditions and then observing your responses.”
“This was a test?”
“Yes, I thought I explained that, Quinn. We’ve been testing you and your crew to see how you would perform should the Tesla drive and AI nav computer malfunction. You passed. You didn’t panic and only initiated the drive when you ran out of viable options. You see, some have suggested that you would order your crew to continue randomly and endlessly jumping in the hopes of getting lucky, while others thought Dixon would start a mutiny and end up doing the same thing. Glad to see none of that happened.”
“It was a test. You put us through hell just to test us.”
“Relax, Captain. You’ve all earned a hefty bonus and an extended vacation. I’m predicting the drive will be 100% in the next six months to a year. When we’re ready, we hope you and your people will volunteer again for the real thing. It’ll be spectacular.”
I wrote this for the Bonus Wordle “Sam’s Choice” hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to author a poem, short story, or other creative work based on using at least ten of the twelve words listed in the “Wordle”. They are:
1. Sweep 2. Void 3. Virtue 4. Tonal 5. Shimmer 6. Burgundy 7. Foot 8. Kingfisher 9. Hurry 10. Bridge 11. Nintendo 12. Grove
To me, the words “sweep” and “void” said “space travel” and I carried on from there, trying to give my wee tale an old school “Twilight Zone” feel. I employed all twelve words but admittedly some of my usage was rather “forced.”