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Thomas Ritchie



Thomas Ritchie



The quest to penetrate the shade of ignorance, that is, the lack of knowing, has led humanity to seek the light of knowledge everywhere, far and wide. And now at last the depths of space.

The deep space exploration vessel Stephen Hawking was decelerating, spinning down from c-plus for intra-solar insertion. The goal was to be half-light by the time they reached solar space. Plus light travel was forbidden in-system, accelerating or decelerating. This made for slow laborious climbs out system and hair raising braking maneuvers coming in. They were descending several degrees above the elliptic plane and were green light all the way for destination speed by the time they reached the plane.

Captain Smith waited on the pilot. They had leveled off and were on course and speed. “Sing it out Mr. Johns.”

The pilot seemed startled. “Green light, destination speed. On course, planet IV. Everything five by, Captain.”

“Very good, Mr. Johns. How long have you been with us now?”

“Long enough, Sir.” Lt. Johns replied properly chaste.

Smith let it ride. “Navigation. How long till planetary orbit?”

“Six hours, thirty three minutes, Sir.”

            “All right, someone inform the prima donnas.”

No one on the bridge crew smiled or acknowledged the remark. It was not an in-joke but the captain venting. It was something never to be repeated in the presence of the two scientists who were their cargo and their mission.

The Stephen Hawking’s mission was simple: explore all discovered planets for the possibility of life. It was officially the Genesis Expedition; or less formally, in the bars and clubs frequented by flight crews, Noah’s Ark II or the God Trip. There were those who believed that finding life out here among the stars would be proof of a divine plan and design. If life on Earth were not a singular freak accident, that would prove the existence of divine providence. It was the polar opposite of the view held ten centuries earlier.

Communications notified the scientists. They replied according to their natures.

“Very well,” Dr. Wingate replied, “tell the Captain to hold at an equatorial orbit.”

“Yes, Doctor.”

“Thank you for informing me.” Dr. Deakins answered. “Six hours? Couldn’t you have waited till we were closer?”

Captain Smith clenched his jaw. Their cargo was scientists of two opposing views. Each with a personal mandate to fulfill their vision of the universe. Three centuries earlier, to avoid civil war, it was decided that diversity through duality was the best course of action. Some course, some action. At least, that was, until some proof; some evidence could be found to prove one thesis or the other. Whichever side gained the upper hand would then dominate science and politics and, presumably, society.

The Creationists and Darwinists had been at each other’s throats that long and longer. And still nothing had manifested to break the stalemate. Exploration of the planets and moons in Sol system had been a bust.

“I’ll be in my quarters. Call me a half hour before our team is ready. Bridge is yours Mr. Johns.”

“Aye, Sir.”

He walked through the narrow bulkheads feet humming with the deck. The deuterium drive engines had taken in smooth after the relinquishment of the warp drive. The Hawking herself was one of a kind, but not for long. The first warp capable ship was based on the theories of Mexican physicist Michael Alcubierre. The Alcubierre system was affectionately called the Alcubby drive. You could always tell how green a new crewman was when he asked, “Who’s Al Cubby?”

In profile, she was long and slender with a sphere four times her height three quarters of the way aft. This housed the stacked particle accelerators which created the microscopic black holes used in the process. These caused the contraction/dilation of spacetime fore and aft that the Hawking rode like a wave. Aft of the sphere a cluster of blisters housed the much more standard thrust deuterium drive engines. To create a simulacrum of gravity she spun upon her axis, an arrow shot into the heart of darkness. She was beauty and grace and power personified. Smith was extremely proud to command her.

Five hours later, Smith received the called to the bridge. The two tenors, as he sometimes thought of them, had decided to show early. They wanted to watch the orbital insertion.

“Nice of you to join us, Captain.” Wingate huffed.

“Sleeping in, huh?” Deakins queried with a sly smile.

Captain Smith smiled wanly. “The affairs of command are at my discretion, gentleman.” He said mildly. “Please take your seats and strap in securely. This will be the same as the previous two insertions.”

“Perhaps there will be some drama this time.” Deakins said perniciously.

“Let’s hope not.”

They still had some velocity to shed, and this would be accomplished by maneuvering steep into the planets gravitational field and then leveling off abruptly. It made for a rough ride with stomach dropping effects. The sudden gravitational lurch at the end caused a swimming disorientation right in the center of your forehead, the bed spinning when you’re drunk.

The ship maneuvered into equatorial orbit without any problems; Smith watched the two scientists at their computer. They were preparing to launch the first of several probes into the atmosphere, onto the surface of Corbit Tau IV. The planet had a thick, primordial atmosphere, extremes of hot and cold and rampaging storms. He and the crew would have little to do for the next six months, as the surface was gone over microscopically with a very fine tooth comb indeed.

Looking at the two of them, he knew you could never confuse which was left and which was right. Wingate was tall neat upright austere. He was decisive and often derisive. He gave orders (even when not entitled to) with the certainty of an Old Testament prophet. Deakins was short, unkempt, dumpy, with a cynical, nearly contemptuous, attitude toward all things unproven which Smith had always thought an odd attitude for a scientist.

As the divas began the standard bickering, Smith called his men to the conference room. Also, the mess hall, the rec room and just about everybody’s office space. He began going over the new duty rosters, posting and static assignments for the next six months.

“Everybody knows their jobs. If you are not directly involved in the scientific aspects of our stay, then there are maintenance duties to attend. Make sure everyone follows the physical routines for extended stays space side. No one gets out of shape.”

He looked around the room. “Any questions?” There were none. “Ok. This is our third stop; so everyone knows the drill. Let’s keep it as uneventful as the other two.”

“Aye, Sir!” They said as one. They were a good crew. He knew everything would be kept ship shape and Bristol fashion; if only to keep their minds off what awaited them back to home. Like the sailing voyages upon the seas of Earth so long ago; these were long, long trips through sheer immensity and distance, ignorance of what lay beyond the veil of darkness. Even with the warp drive, no one they knew would be waiting for them when they got back home. This was the sharp edge hidden in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Coming here they had passed a spot of space which had afforded them, through the ships telescope, a clear view of the superheated columns of gas first seen by the Hubble telescope three centuries earlier. The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula some 7,000 light years beyond. The shrinking of the gas clouds, these star cradles, giving birth to entire systems. They had all stood on the bridge in wide, silent wonder at the sheer magnitude and the realistic improbability of them. Wingate and Deakins had ruined it of course by bickering and by categorizing and analyzing all its parts and parcels the scanners showed them. Breaking it down to basic parts, which somehow, when added up again, was less than the whole of its majesty.

“Incredible.” Wingate breathed reverently, seeming on the verge of relenting the argument for a time. “That such a thing should ever come to pass.”

“Yes,” Deakins said, “perhaps its miraculous interposition.” Smiled acidly.

Wingate looked at him sharp and hard. “Yes,” he said, “perhaps it is.”

 And that was it. They were at it again.

The planet hung off the port side, glided through space, they with it, turned on its axis, they with it, made its annual pilgrimage around its sun, and they went with it. They were 100 light years from home. 600 trillion miles; when you thought of it like that it was like a punch in the stomach. It was best to keep it small and tight and under control. All that velvet black distance of the void, which was not empty, would make you freeze. The planet hurled through spacetime, and they hurled with it. A speck of dust in a sun drenched mote. Flotsam and jetsam tossed to and fro upon the waves of spacetime. Inside the ship, their bodies metabolized foods; their lungs absorbed oxygen; they slept and shed fatigue toxins. They dreamed.

They dreamed each to their own accord and their own hearts and their own desires. Their synapses fired; short-term memories were processed to the hippocampus. Their dreams were full of notions, ideas, hopes and fears, love and hate all greater than the sum of their parts.

There were several injuries, all minor; slipped wrench abrasions, hot conduit burns, bumps, bruises from low portals and narrow bulkheads. Tissue healed renewed re-knit itself. Their bodies produced new cells, shed the old.

Corbit Tau 7a continued to burn hydrogen, compress it actually, under tremendous pressures, into helium, radiated its energy outward warmingly. It revolved, its six planets followed, couturiers on its elliptic plane, the moons the squires of their planets.

The ship, much like its own designer and creator, internalized and externalized, breathed for them, inhaled carbon dioxide, exhaled oxygen nitrogen mix. It processed fuel, used it for energy. It dreamed as well in its own way, the constant processing and correlating of data from sensors and monitors both internal and external to itself. Not a true, conscious entity, and still like unto its creators it had its own life, purpose, fate and destiny.

The sensor sweeps continued. The ship’s orbital course corrected to get each and every corner and quadrant of the planet’s surface. The crew was bored but not edgy. They were disciplined and focused. They did not indulge in the petty squabbles of the two scientists. The entire crew had been picked based on their psychological, nearly pathological, apathy toward political skews. They were all emotionally stolid rationalists. The moderates of common sense, those not easily riled or ranted into reactionary stances, the very fabric of any true and virtuous society. They had been neglected for nearly three centuries. Even this did not seem to rouse either ire or angst. They were content to wait, not to force. Their time must surely come.

The prima donna's continued at it. They got on Smith’s nerves something terrible. It was all well and good for the crew. They did not have to deal with them too directly did not have to moderate their rhetoric and debates, some very near brawls. A few weeks earlier he had been talking to Wingate in the conference room. The scientists were not allowed to proselytize to the crew. But they both needed someone to preach to which of course left Smith. Wingate was telling him a story from his childhood.

“I remember the pastor saying, ‘and then the clouds parted, a light shone forth upon him and the heavens spoke.’ I wish it were that simple now. What do you suppose ever became of miracles Captain Smith?”

Smith shrugged, remaining noncommittal. Deakins entered hearing the tail end of Wingate’s comment. His face contorted in disgust.

“Still seeking the Creator amid the chaos? As if Darwinist theory hasn’t disproven the direct, or otherwise, involvement of a ‘higher being.” He said this last in a voice quavering rising in contempt. “I suppose you think the world is only 4,000 years old as well?”

“I am not a Young Earth Creationist, and you know it. Interpretation of scripture through divine accommodation has allowed us to see the goodness of God more clearly in the natural world. Remember, understanding how the watch works does not preclude the existence of a watchmaker.”

“Huh! Newton was one of us!” He looked at Smith. “Lions, bears and even some primates will kill the offspring when they take over an area; to bring the females into estrus. Do you suppose God is good then? Gentle loving Creator?”

“All I know,” Smith allowed, “is that life is often beautiful and grotesque at the same time. I had gotten the impression that was what made it so profound.”

Deakins harrumphed again. From there he went onto the evils perpetrated by organized religion historically. Wingate to ‘through the glass darkly,’ the nature of good and evil.

Smith did not like Deakins. He was a rabid, fanatical man as bad as any bible thumper. There were many on the Creationist side just as destructive. Wingate was not one of them. Deakins wanted science to dominate in the same way that religion had and Smith could not tell the difference. The evils perpetrated by religion, in his opinion, which he kept to himself, arose not from any flaw in a particular religion per se. But from the willingness of human nature to corrupt to their own ends. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And at least religion offered hope. Deakins vision of a bleak universe where people were ruled solely by animal instinct and cruel, indifferent nature was a lousy plan to run things on. Smith thought people already had an intuitive unspoken grasp of this fact, and that was where the corruption came from in the first place. Power without a counterbalance was a truly terrifying proposition. All things, forces and dynamics, must seek equilibrium. That was structure over chaos. He kept all this to himself. It would have done no good to speak it aloud. Some aspect of it or another would only offend one and both of them together.

He left them to their debate of good and evil and instinct, divine, moral purpose and phyletic gradualism. He had heard it all before. It was all the same.

Well, he thought, sitting in the command chair on the bridge, doing reports and trying vainly to ignore their constant bickering, I wonder if I could put them overboard? There had been a time. He could have hung them from the yard arm. Yeah, so much for master and commander.

Then at last, and finally, it was done. Every last trace and nuance of the planet’s surface probed and scanned analyzed and recorded.

“Well it’s finished.” Wingate said. He turned to Smith exhaustion and disappointment showed on his face.

            “Yes,” said Deakins. His sense of secular superiority seemed always to grow in direct proportion to Wingate’s disappointment. Cause and effect, Smith conjectured, for every reaction…

“What was there to find?” He already knew the answer.

“Nothing notable,” Wingate said, “some complex organically occurring proteins nothing more.”

“Yes,” said Deakins, “nothing even remotely complex as early bacteria.”

His tone of voice his demeanor was maliciously gleeful. Smith wondered at it. I suppose he takes more pleasure from demeaning the beliefs of others then in the act of discovery itself.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I suppose we should set course onto the next system? Gentleman, you concur?”

“Yes, Captain.” Wingate had a far look a look of doubt.

“Yes, we may as well,” Deakins said. He had calmed considerably, his moment of dubious victory now a thing of the past.

“All right. Mr. Johns! Set course for out-system. Begin our ascent above the elliptic.”

            “Aye, Captain!”

“I suppose someday…” Wingate started.

Smith watched his helmsman. His fingers flying over the controls.

“What’s that?” Deakins asked, not unkindly.

 Smith did not attend the conversation. He watched the endless stars in the infinite universe change position, shine and glow their eternal light upon the projection screen, as they moved above the elliptic. The two eternal forms of the universe, the disc and the sphere, and then at last the disc again, played out the passion of birth and life and death eternally somewhere out there in that vast field of light and darkness.

“That someday, out here, we will find the miracle of life.”

Smith watched his helmsman. The smooth flow of his hands, the flick of his eyes to screens and displays, telling him all he needed to know. You could see his mind moving analyzing, not ratcheting, flowing. He was one and all with his actions, his thoughts and his ship. A work of wonder. Maybe someday, he thought.

The ship continued its slow laborious ascent into the eternal light and darkness.

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