Part 3

Committal

“So how soon do you think that the IIR can ready a batch of these incredible FTL units Professor?”

Seated at a large rectangular table on the patio of a lavish restaurant by the harbour – the sort which gave the professor a slightly uneasy feeling due its over-abundance of gleaming metallic fittings – Schwartz nervously pondered this question from a member of the delegation. He circled the rim of his tall glass with his finger – filled with sparkling water which fizzed and gargled eagerly – and glanced across the table toward the three staid faces which awaited his reply.

The Professor’s troubled thoughts had intensified since the phone call earlier that evening which had instigated this rendezvous. He just could not shake the dark images of the Banquo; endlessly adrift, or worse; its crew somehow distorted by the forces of light-speed, mutated ghouls locked in a steel prison. Schwartz – tacking his forlorn gaze away from the six wide eyes confronting him – was imminently reminded of an article he had read several years earlier whilst teaching in Switzerland.

A then eminent French psychologist named Michel Mort had claimed to have conducted a series of experiments into the suitability of human beings for light-speed travel and presented a paper to a mixture of excitement and scepticism at England’s Oxford University.

At this point, now some fifteen years ago, a research facility in the U.S had made advances in time acceleration experiments, led by mercurial physicist Dr Christopher Kraft. Kraft’s efforts had been able to simulate an accelerated timeframe within a small, controlled environment for a limited period, allowing simple organic material to illustrate the effects of time expedition. An important example of this was an apple which rotted away in a matter of seconds – images of which featured prominently in several leading scientific journals and raised a brief muttering of dissention within anti-space groups who perceived such work as a blatant pre-cursor to future space travel.

Now, Mort’s own presentation caused consternation amongst the learned audience at Oxford by extravagantly declaring that he – working with Dr Kraft and utilising his previous experiments at Berkley University – had generated a “time-space anomaly” – as he termed it – for a sustained period.

More pertinently, these tests, it was asserted, had used rodent and human subjects as active participants; far exceeding any contemporary expectations of the potential of such scientific advances. Given the continuing apathy and – in some quarters – outright distrust of any associations with manned space-flight, it was widely understood that the entire field of faster-than-light experimentation had remained in a state of inertia since Professor Claudia Tewnon had controversially revealed early progress some twelve years previously. Mort however, declared that the results of his strenuous research indicated that not only had the field leapt forward in the intervening years, but much more strikingly and contentiously, humans could be subject to unbearable psychological stresses when exposed to time acceleration followed by a return to “standard” time; An utterly radical preposition given that any research advancements might potentially facilitate manned space-flight. The clutch of researchers, academics, M.D’s, students and bona-fide physicists sat in a collective stupor as the Frenchman continued.

Mort’s paper suggested that repeated exposures to ‘time-shifts’ led to widespread disorientation in mammals, and he elucidated by highlighting a series of experiments in which mice were chronically disorientated – unable to coordinate any physical movement at all – after a duration of extended time acceleration. Mort cited one specific case where the outlined condition continued for such duration in one subject that the creature eventually succumbed to total paralysis and then death – unable to perform vital functions necessary for its survival.

In humans – Mort stressed – his experiments indicated more severe consequences due to the collective ability of the species to perceive time and their own existence within a chain of causality. Fatigue, depression, aggression and hallucinations were cited as the most likely effects of repeated exposure to accelerated time as well as a high likelihood that more severe consequences – as witnessed in the mouse – could follow. Mort asserted that a range of tests had also been conducted using human subjects – although not as extensively exposed to time discrepancies as the mice – and the unsavoury and concerning behaviour he had noted was bore-out in a series of interviews and screening in the subsequent months. In Mort’s keynote speech which concluded his two-hour presentation, he re-asserted his belief that much work must be done in the field and that the “psychology must match the physics”; the technology in the field of faster-than-light travel was advancing but research into its effects upon its subjects must match and exceed this, he argued.

After bewildering glances, initial warm applause and enthusiastic journal reviews, Mort’s work came under closer scrutiny and suspicion from pro-space activists and lobbyists in the weeks and months that followed. Some observers became immediately suspicious at the rhetorical tone of Mort’s seminar and his apparent bias on the subject on which he spoke. An investigation by a reporter from French newspaper Le Monde a month later identified Mort as having strong financial ties to Francois Avarice, an influential industrialist who had strongly supported right-wing – and notable isolationist – political candidate Jacque Isole in his election campaign the previous year.

In addition to this, the human subjects of Mort’s studies were never satisfactorily identified; their given identities and addresses proving only fitfully traceable and vague. Such revelation gave credence to a growing theory that his ‘study’ was merely a stunt designed to promote the Earthist’s cause and discrediting any future in space within influential academic circles; Mort was “bought and paid for” by the French isolationist right wing one reporter wrote – his experiments fanciful.

To compound the mystique of the incident, shortly before Mort made the journey to England to give his presentation, Dr Christopher Kraft was tragically killed in a sailing accident on Lake Tahoe; effectively destroying any tangible hope that Mort had of salvaging his flailing reputation in the face of increasing damning accusations as well as locking the door on any hope of substantiating the claims of his work. With Kraft removed from the picture, any faster-than-light experimentation diminished into abject lassitude once-more; its torchbearer lost and its impetus eradicated. Whatever their involvement or otherwise, the Earthist cause had their wish for the time-being.

Shortly after the newspaper accusations, Mort himself vanished from view, failing to attend a series of lectures he was scheduled to give in Paris that autumn. Little is known of what became of the capricious Frenchman after that. Some of the wilder rumours circulated that he started an Isolationist cult in Southern France, dedicated to Earthist ideals with a plan to tunnel under the Earth and forge a new society safe from “space-faring idealists” (as Mort is – possibly apocryphally – reported to have once referred to the pro-space activist group CFARSCampaign For A Return To Space). More rational conjecture suggested that he simply retired from academic life, disenchanted and heartbroken at his life’s work being belittled on such a wide scale and attached to such diametrically opposed and ferocious causes.

Disregarding the uncertain and undesirable particulars of Michel Mort’s personal narrative, Professor Schwartz could not stop his thoughts from clamouring back to those conclusions in his study. Try as he might to dismiss them in the same manner as many evidently had at the time, they persisted in clinging to the window-ledge of his mind and peered through the adjoining window intrusively; waving their arms excitedly and pointing in some as-yet undecipherable direction. The experiences of Samuel Jonsen seemed a little too pertinent at this moment, a tad too immediate and relevant, and Schwartz wriggled uncomfortably in his seat – mulling over myriad images in his tormented mind.

“Professor?” the delegate repeated, leaning forward and attempting to grasp Schwartz’s wayward attention. “Did you hear me sir? I asked when you believe your Institute will be able to supply the first batch of engines to WSEA? The politicians are keen to press forward straight away.”

“Uh yes, I’m sorry”, Schwartz replied, flicking his tired eyes back to the young man with cropped blond hair. “You have to understand…um, Mr Miller, this is a complex and difficult procedure which requires time and patience. We are not a wholesaler and we are not talking about toy cars. There are many intricate layers of testing – “

“But Professor,” A young woman sitting to Miller’s right interjected, “The World is dependent on you and your facility to lead this project. People need to see progress if we are going to convince them that this whole program is obtainable. We need what you guard so preciously.”

Schwartz fidgeted again, releasing his neck slightly from the vice-like tie which hung around it; clearly his fellow diners were in impatient mood. Desperate to purchase some vital time for further lab testing and greater psycho-evaluation of the two Chinese pilots, he knew that he had maybe seconds to say the right words and keep these wolves at bay from his door; to keep further blood from staining his weary hands. He tapped his foot rapidly beneath the iron table, time seemingly accelerating in these moments without the aid or need of any complicated or newfangled device.

“Too much of a delay!” he squealed suddenly, rocking the three suited diners back in their wicker chairs momentarily with shock at his eruption. “Yes, it will take too much time!” he gabbled; a wry smile elevating his languishing face in realisation that he may have found – may just have peeked at – a get-out clause. “As of the present moment I am afraid that the IIR has no flight-ready FTL drives”, he lied (for there were currently three completed units awaiting pre-flight tests), before continuing his yarn, index finger gesticulating purposefully: “We would need, oohh, five months to complete a batch of four I would propagate without adequate figures at hand.” He knew this duration was not nearly enough to conduct all of the procedures, checks and experiments that he wished, but given the present situation – these three physical manifestations of an unchallengeable force pressurising him like a grape in a fist – it was a length of time which at least offered some escape. If he could slink and evade himself away from this table; if he could placate them somehow, there might be a chance for he and his team to make some discovery or usher forth some advance.

“Five months?! But we launched WSEA today! It’s been broadcast round the globe!” the rotund man sitting at the head of the table babbled, having been a silent and stolid figure thus far.

“Yes, yes I understand entirely. What you need is something to show the people. A symbol of the future” Schwartz reposted with a faint air of condescension, feeling now that he had a firmer grasp over proceedings – holding a few stronger cards at least – but still retaining control of his emotions in this taught situation.

“But what?! – “, Mr Miller agitatedly began to ask, flinging his arms back in wild gesture of surrender, revealing two dark blots of sweat under his armpits.

Thinking back to the successes the Institute had accomplished with takeoff/re-entry procedures over the past three years (a one hundred percentile success ratio, “at least some of the mysteries of space flight have been mastered by man” thought Schwartz dryly), another branch to this master escape plan formed in the Professor’s head with heartbeat-like speed.

“Perhaps construction could begin on vehicles to travel in orbit and to embark upon Moon-to-Earth return flights in anticipation of the next stage?” he proffered to his audience.

“But that was done almost a hundred years ago! It’s goddam pointless!” cried Miller again, now flinging his hands on the table, pushing himself towards Schwartz confrontationally.

“No wait Simon, the Professor may have a point here”, the large man interrupted, looking down the table to his young colleague. “If we give public something substantial we can buy time to ready the main event. It would be a sign of intent.”

At this, the situation was diffused slightly, the man sitting at the end clearly the senior official in the party, Schwartz opined to himself – the organisational structure being somewhat undefined thus far. The next half-hour of the meeting proceeded in fairly cordial fashion, Schwartz eagerly outlining his vision of the next generation of space cargo-ships, using the salt and pepper pots and his fountain pen as visual aids. Despite the fraught and difficult situation, the professor never lagged in his enthusiasm when it came to enlightening a captive audience on his space visions. Some time later, the delegates exited politely and graciously, paying the not inconsiderable bill and leaving a generous tip – which the Professor peeked a glimpse of as the waiter whisked it under his nose. Just as Schwartz was about to revel in some much-needed relief that the meeting was over and he had fought his corner courageously – likening himself briefly to a bloodied and battered heavyweight boxer toothlessly holding aloft the belt – his satisfaction was punctured. Turning back towards the Professor after his colleagues had proceeded on through the maze of now sparsely populated tables and chairs; Mr Miller narrowed his eyes and said:

“Oh Professor, I should have been more perspicuous earlier; the contents of this conversation are of course indicative and preliminary only. You will, of course, understand that we have our superiors and they will make their recommendations just as you have made yours. I suggest you formalise your ideas – “, and at this he waved his hand dismissively in the direction of the table and the cutlery that Schwartz had used as illustrative devices, “and prepare a report for WSEA’s inspection. Because – “, and now he paused and coughed a rather shallow and artificial cough as if it were merely a dramatic device, “you can be absolutely sure that we will be in contact shortly with our requirements.” At this, he flashed a sharp and patronising smile and twisted round, slinking from Schwartz’s view.

Later, as the moon had gracefully climbed into the clear evening sky, Schwartz dropped exhaustedly into his bed in a resolved – but overridingly – contented mood. He lay on his back, crumpled shirt flailing jadedly, and craned his neck to look out of the French doors which adorned the room. The world looked abstract and disjoined from this perspective, sky and ground misaligned, masts of the harboured ships jutting outward horizontally. Schwartz allowed his eyelids to fall together.

He had, he concluded in his last drowsy moments, purchased something perhaps flimsy and intangible – but potentially most precious of all tonight – time.

 

Night Terrors

Time was becoming an increasingly strange and doubtful companion to Captain Kobaknov aboard the Sartorious. With no external reference points – sun, stars or moons which rise and fall, sparkle and fade with metronomic regularity – days and nights, weeks and months – became abstracts, all.

Kobaknov flicked his wrist over and consulted his artificial time guardian; ‘7:00pm’ it declared. He reared his head back slightly at this, aghast that he had seemingly lost command over time altogether. He had thought that it was some time in the ‘am’ for he had awoken from his slumber only a couple hours earlier.

“Can’t be right”, he murmured, rattling the chunky plastic device and heading to a nearby ‘ship status’ panel in the engine room where he was monitoring a faulty generator. The panel swung back with a popping noise and the readout in the top right corner concurred with the watch; ‘SHIP TIME: 19:01’ the yellow digital numerals read.

Looking about him, as if searching for some answer to this conundrum in the nearby air, Kobaknov attempted to trace the events of the last few hours; when had he last slept precisely – what time was it when he awoke? What did he do before that? These issues thoroughly and comprehensively unanswered, he returned to his co-current task and read a diagnostic readout from the device which he had affixed to the generator terminal.

Subsequently sloping back towards the command bridge – the generator now performing to his satisfaction – the captain again turned his mind’s eye to the matter of time; when precisely he had ceased following an orthodox day-night pattern and seemingly lost traction with it entirely, like car tyres slipping in deep mud.

Back in his familiar chair, Kobaknov lazily regarded the navigation control monitor – the Sartorious’ auto pilot was functioning capably and another FTL jump was scheduled for three hours time – 10pm. Reclining back into his default position, he affixed his stare on the view ahead of him; The rectangular window and simple blackness – but not a darkness like anything he had witnessed before alighting aboard this vessel seemingly so very long ago in the distant past. This was an utter and unforgiving blackness; its purity matched only by its apparent malevolence toward the lonesome soul aboard that ship who dared look into its soul.

Leaning forward and squinting his eyes, Kobaknov strained to make out any discernable features from within the eternal inky mirage that stretched ahead, but nothing presented itself – not star, nebula or the effervescent swish of a distant galaxy. It truly was, he thought, the dankest and lifeless of places that he had ever perceived.

After a prolonged period of still reflection upon this disheartening perspective where his eyes began to generate random white spots and dashes against the satin cloak – his mind deciding that the blankness needed some livening up – the captain rose up deciding that now would be a good time to eat before the next bout of nauseating light-speed travel encroached upon him.

Back in the mess, Kobaknov propped his noticeably waning frame against a steel cabinet, itself covered in a thin film of dust. He peeled the lid back on a diminutive meagre can and prodded at the insipid yellow pulp within with a plastic fork. Chewing on a few mouthfuls of the dire offering, he slapped his lips together clumsily – such as a toddler might do to register their dissatisfaction at a new taste – before indifferently tossing the can into the adjacent chrome sink which was already abound with soiled cutlery.

Rolling his tongue around the detailed landscape of his mouth, the captain wondered why nothing tasted quite right any longer; nothing was as it should be for the captain at the present. There seemed to be a reluctance and reticence about everything recently, as if now, even food itself were deliberately withholding its flavours from his pleading taste buds.

Casting a disgruntled stare at the detritus which littered the kitchen worksurface – opened packets and jars strewn across the aluminium veneer – Kobaknov checked his timepiece again; still two hours until the FTL jump. His mind an equally untidy and morose resort as the room he stood in, he scanned the room in search of some pursuit or activity which might occupy him. Quickly admitting defeat in this preposterous venture, Kobaknov threw himself down on his makeshift hammock – strung aloft in the corner – and slipped into another bout of disquieting sleep.

His body contracting violently, the captain lurched from his miserable slumber; panting heavily and his heart thumping violently. The alarm on his watch was pinging loudly, like a needle being driven into his skull. He focused his vision on its glowing face: ten minutes until FTL.

His fleeting dreams had been murky and sinister; visions of the Sartorious drifting endlessly; silent silhouetted figures bursting from its corroded hull and ambling into the unrepentant vacuum encompassing them. Again and again these images had scored his resting thoughts and as he was roused abruptly, they now permeated his waking consciousness, as if lodged between the cognitive and the empirical world they had transcended into reality and hung before his eyes.

Gathering himself together and rising, Kobaknov breathed heavily as he stepped towards the door, still unsure as to exactly where his nightmares had ceased and where he had awoke. Hurrying through the arteries of the groaning ship, the captain recounted his dreams more concertedly and this filled him with an almost debilitating dread.

Turning the sharp bend onto the main portside serviceway, Kobaknov halted at once and stood, locked in pose. Craning his right ear to an ungainly angle he listened intently for a second or two; listening to something which he was unsure of, but yet understood all-the-same. The noisy air-conditioners wheezed and shuddered from above and the ship’s engines rumbled quietly amongst this ever-present chorus. He could hear nothing else of any discernable clarity. Clearly he had imagined it.

Continuing on briskly, aware of the rapidly elapsing time before he must be safely positioned in the command bridge, Kobaknov marched further up the long tubular passage, his feet gently tapping against the worn decking, his mind turning to the upcoming unpleasantness which would follow.

Again though he halted, hearing that certain something amongst the din; only this time it was louder. Shaking his head in attempt to clear it somewhat, the captain was still not fully content with the concept of him being awake at all.

“Is this still that damned dream?” he pondered aloud, rubbing his right hand along his exposed left forearm energetically, as if to test his physical existence in the time-honoured fashion. The noise rang true again; it was a murmuring noise now, unclear and raucous but most definitely present. The sound of the ship’s environment seemed to be quieter to Kobaknov momentarily and he could now, arching his head again and freezing in position, ascertain with greater distinction what this distant distraction was.

Voices?!” he cried in a fleeting panic, his tone conveying both surprise and affirmation. Rising his head upward he now perceived many voices emanating from above him; laughing, chattering, cries of anguish – ringing all about him and growing more audible and distinct; as if he were removing headphones and becoming attuned to his environment. The sounds grew and grew in volume; the abundance of different calls intensified. They beat into his mind, submerging him in confusion. By degrees, like a great throbbing pulse, the shouts and calls became lower and lower in pitch until they had mutated into a harmonious deep, heavy pulsing sound which now appeared to vibrate the entire deck. A shuddering, shimmering, aching whine. This pulsing, as it rumbled on, now seemed to co-ordinate with Kobaknov’s own heavy breathing; an unbearable droning which unabatedly mocked him.

Slamming his hands across his ears, desperate for relief from this torment, Kobaknov clenched his eyes tightly and tucked his head towards his body; like he were shielding himself from a physical bombardment. The sound continued though and Kobaknov opened his eyes again. In that instance of self-inflicted blindness the overhead lights had dimmed to almost darkness as the ship’s systems shutdown in preparation for the FTL jump.

Now situated in an eerie gloom, Kobaknov instinctively swung his body round one-hundred-and-eighty degrees and looked back down the long corridor from which he had proceeded. Hands still clasped to his ears and with the dreadful deep throbs pounding around him, he looked into the distance to where the door of the medical pod loomed.

The captain’s eyes widened and tears of shock and awe swelled around his eyelids. His mouth gaped open – a strand of saliva stretched across the widening chasm. Hands now falling involuntarily from his ears, he turned away and ran up the corridor towards the bridge. Transforming into a disorganised mass of arms and legs, stumbling and tripping; Kobaknov battled into the bridge, slamming the steel door behind him and shutting out that unrelenting noise.

At the far end of the corridor, a deep, intense crimson light blasted through the small circular window of the medical pod door, engulfing the darkened tunnel-like passage in an angry hue. It stretched out, like a giant glove, striving to clasp its fingers around that departed human form behind the metal door.

Fortunately for captain Kobaknov, he had another urgent matter to attend to – an impending event to drag his attention from the gruesome events of moments ago. Thrusting himself from the yielding floor of the bridge and leaping into his chair, he firmly attached a harness around his waist and yanked another down from behind his right shoulder, fastening it with a clicking sound by his right hip. Despite the troublesome state of his thoughts, Kobaknov presently sighed in relief that he was safely in position.

Only two areas of the entire ship were designated as ‘safe zones’ during FTL flight: the bridge and the medical facility. These reinforced, bespoke sections of the ship offered protection from the external forces and pressures caused by light-speed travel (according to the WSEA safety manual which now resided safely next to the toilet in the washroom) and failure to confine ones self to these zones could allegedly cause “significant injury” to the individual.

By now, a set of green bulbs had begun flashing regularly around the perimeter of the bridge ceiling; engulfing the compact room in an intermittent emerald light replacing the usual ivory sheen. Kobaknov pulled a small thin screen toward him from his left-hand side and strained to read it below the flashing lights: ’FTL COUNTDOWN: 00:55’.

A rare silence gripped the Sartorious; its primary engines shut down in anticipation of their superior brother’s arrival. Kobaknov could hear a creaking and clanking noise as the drive exhausts emerged from their concealed housings some one-hundred-and-fifty-feet behind him; extending out like petals emerge from a bud in spring, vigorously vibrating the well-versed hull.

The countdown expired; Kobaknov felt a pang of nervousness course through his stomach like a vile infectious worm manoeuvring through his digestive tract. High-pitched ringing consumed the bridge – the hull rivets about to explode with vibration – and he pushed himself back into the chair, his spine rigid, every muscle contracted.

The wondrous engines fired; a great pulverising force pushed down on the head and chest of the captain. His breathing was constricted; he only able to manage tiny sharp inhales of the thick cabin air which failed miserably to satisfy his aching lungs. His mouth dried and soured behind his vice-like clenched teeth which ground against one another.

He could sense no tangible motion of the vessel, yet the forces around him signalled that some form of change was taking place – shifting his tiny world at unprecedented speed; shattering the relationship between the metal carcass of the Sartorious its nursing pocket of space. Glancing at his hand and wriggling it slightly below the straps of the chair, Kobaknov perceived that it carried with it a residual distortion in its wake; a wave-like apparition which trailed through the air.

The jump drive powered on, now at full terrific velocity; an astounding symphony of light and noise which invaded every millimetre of the vessel. His eyes ajar, Kobaknov stared straight ahead and through his watering eyes he could visualise a vague, ethereal spiral of colour through the vibrating window up ahead – a sublime cascade of reds, purples, yellows, greens and every other colour in the spectrum; all converging at some distant epicentre far ahead which was formed of dazzling white light. Like water spinning into a plughole, the colours energetically raced to their destination and disappeared, only to be followed by more and more. Looking straight into this elegant waltz, mesmerised, Kobaknov felt himself temporarily isolated from his own person, and he could now glance back at his own face which was grimacing in the command chair. He seemed to be detached from his empirical form and could roam freely; released of all epistemic constraints. And for that instant he did feel freer than ever; light and intoxicated. Discharged from the manacles of reality.

For the second time recently however, Kobaknov regarded his own face intently and noticed things which he did not fully understand. Right now he saw lifelessness in his face; there was a sullen and prosaic nature to his features, a stillness and coldness. A haunting detachment. A haggard countenance stared back which was not the same as the one which he had regarded millions of times in the mirror. This revelation caused him to instantaneously slide back within this form and return to the torment of the moment; the uncomfortable conclusions of these reflections shattering his transcendental voyage and sharply re-aligned him with himself.

Swallowed in the thunderous noise which engulfed the room, and smeared into his chair by the forces about him, the human body could finally tolerate no more. The captain suddenly slumped leadenly and fell unconscious as the FTL engines roared onward.

Waking from his enforced siesta, Kobaknov hung ungracefully, still strapped into his seat, body collapsed forward, a syrupy string of drool hanging from his lower lip. Lifting his head as though it weighed many kilos, he clumsily unfastened himself and dropped to floor despondently. There he lay on his back, a wreck of flesh and bone, struggling to adjust to the speed of the world around him; his light-speed ordeal ended, for now.

He was overwhelmed by the burning pain in his head, coupled with an inability to stand or move properly; resigned to crawl about like some early anthropod, devoid of rigidity.

His schisms in time had rendered him inert from the timeframe he had now arrived back within and he felt as though his body had to somehow slow down again and resynchronise with the ship; his vision was worthless and his muscles ached. At such moments as these Kobaknov wished with all his heart that he could trade places with the Sartorious. How wonderful it must be, he thought, writhing about the floor of the bridge, to be nothing but bulkheads, rivets and circuitry. His organs wretched and cramped. He violently convulsed; spewing across the floor.

Lying curled in ball as a baby rests in its mother’s womb, the captain shivered and sobbed miserably as he waited for his mind to decelerate from light-speed and rejoin his physical environment. Waiting deliriously for time to relinquish its clasp upon his ailing mind.                                  

 

III

If the tragic loss of the space shuttle had precipitated the end of the space-age, it also served as a tragic catalyst which exacerbated growing factions within western society. Space, its exploration and the significance of humanity amongst such grandiose notions was to become a point of contention that would polarise academics, politicians, writers and the population more widely.

Only five months before the gruesome unfolding of mission STS-134 – now stricken from the official canon of the space age – a highly visible British academic, television presenter and fiction writer produced a series of articles on a popular news website.

Within the complete set, entitled ‘The Next Giant Leap’, Andrew Golding captivated the wide readership by enthusiastically illustrating a potential future for mankind in space. The article featured interviews with scientists and engineers as well as a confounding wealth of technical data and striking conceptual designs of colonies and new spacecraft. Using the then prevalent international financial difficulties and ecological concerns as the primary justification and purpose for his opinions (indeed, the first essay was entitled ‘how to escape this malaise’), Golding’s powerful visions proposed an escape from such concerns, “freeing us from the mundane economical rat-race of modern life” as he phrased it. Reaching back to the distant ‘golden age’ of American and British science-fiction writing and echoing the intoxicating speculations of the 1950s, Golding highlighted the recent developments of manned-space flight and suggested that exploration to Mars as well as expansion of orbital space station activity was the logical and realistic next step for human space flight. Golding foresaw possibilities to establish manned stations and then colonies on both the moon and Mars and lined up several reputable scientists and experts who testified as to the genuine plausibility of such ideas.

The latter of his articles – taking on a more scholarly and economic tone – even pleaded with governments to re-invest in space exploration in a fashion akin to the 1960s and 70s, propounding the somewhat controversial opinion that space should be the top governmental priority for economically developed nations, “eclipsing all other priorities”. Golding presented a plethora of data and statistics in an attempt to indicate government wastage of money that could be diverted towards his new cause – much of which was, unfortunately for the writer, quickly derided and unwoven by more reputable economists and political analysts.

Despite the evident personal biases of the articles and their, at times, hollow rhetorical style, internet responses were abundant – the articles seemingly tapping into the zeitgeist of the times and appealing to an irate and ostracised public – one desperate for a glimmer of optimism beneath the weighty realities of their lives. Forums and personal web-pages became filled with ideas and opinions on the Golding articles, spurring great debate which spread into the ‘mainstream’ media.

Critics labelling themselves as “pragmatists” and “realists” however, chastised Golding and his growing number of supporters. One notable columnist, speaking on breakfast television, called his ideas “selfish escapism and adolescent dreaming” from “nothing more than a science fiction fanatic” while suggesting that the world needed to confront its problems with “common sense and hard-work”.

The momentum of this new galvanised pro-space legion had made space a viable issue for public debate however, even sparking comments by a handful of backbench politicians in the British House of Commons. If a new, dynamic set of objectives could be affixed and pursued, it was sanguinely argued, a new monumental common goal for mankind could be tangibly close.

Only a few short months later though, notions of leaving the Earth for the eternal frontiers of the galaxy were to be dashed for many decades.

In the wake of the shuttle’s loss, concerted and highly-charged vitriolic sentiment arose from an unlikely source and began to form the backbone of a new wave of space scepticism. The enthusiasm and zealous reception of Golding’s landmark essays was now matched, surpassed even, by an ideologically anchored charge against manned space-flight. The focus of criticism now latently shifted towards the role of the human-being amongst the dreams, schemes, missiles and machines.

Initially born of late neo-Marxist philosophy – and long before Michel Mort’s ideologically contentious psychological rationalisation for non-human spaceflight – a group of American socialists – the Adornists – compiled a series of radical essays which examined the role of humans within the “domineering mechanisms” of the space program, as it was termed. Published just one year after STS-134, they proved to be just as timely as Golding’s utopian essays – but for entirely different reasons – and would lay the foundations for almost seventy years of popular opinion towards spaceflight.

In the keynote paper entitled ‘A Theory On Man As A Subservient Of Political Goals’, author Maxwell Hooper outlined what he saw as grievous irony in the way in which humans had been enlisted as the servants of political objectives by the space program. Reaching back to the “first-phase” of the space race and the fierce competition between the U.S and Russia, Hooper cited the use of rocket and capsule launch methods as being an “unsavoury ideological landmark” for all future space flight.

Initially centring on the role of the United States of America, Hooper suggested that by taking military test pilots and simply strapping them on top of little more than modified ballistic missiles, NASA robbed these individuals of any importance to the flight procedure – reducing them to “passengers on a pro-capitalist bandwagon”. It was a great irony – Hooper suggested – that such skilled individuals were chosen and rigorously trained in order that they became little more than ballast; dragged along as a mere demonstration that the human-being could survive the journey. Drawing on his Marxist roots, Hooper likened this to the dehumanising of individuals within the manufacturing production line – removing “the individualism of the human being” and redefining them as a minor subsidiary within a “staggeringly convoluted” process of management, design and operation.

The strongest attack within Hooper’s essay was his labelling of the U.S Government as proponents and guardians of such a system; the now true enforcers of capitalist ideology above any corporation. The paper argued vehemently that Marx had foreseen a governmental body as being the heart of a centralised socialist state but the government of mid to late twentieth-century America had inverted this position “irretrievably”. During the space-race (which must be distinguished from the ‘space-age’ – the name now commonly applied to the entire first manned space era of 1957 to 2010), the U.S government had “enslaved” the public into fighting for capitalist ideology, Hooper argued. The massive budget afforded to NASA by the government – and divided into hundreds of subcontracts – had essentially forged a socialist state, but one which ironically, was undeniably focussed on “the enhancement of selfish capitalist ideals and values” where “the population of the nation became as powerless as the individuals locked inside the metal coffins of NASA’s vehicles”.

Hooper concluded that this early period of manned space flight had radically transformed the relationship between government and corporation – the U.S government assuming the “manipulative and domineering position” which weakened the role and value of the individual to an extent where “there could simply be no recourse…the rhetoric, posturing and hyperbole…too deeply chiselled into [our] collective consciousness”.

Later in his essay, Hooper was also critical of the Soviet space program for many of the same reasons as he chastises America. He suggested that although the early part of the space race was led by a communist government, by entering into direct competition and assuming the same engineering philosophies (Hooper outlines that the Soviet cosmonauts had even less piloting control of their craft than their American counterparts) they had succumbed to the same weaknesses and denigrated the human being also. The author goes to extreme lengths in his damnation of the communist program by proposing that

“The moment Yuri Gagarin launched in a craft designed to be nothing more than a hollow political vehicle in a facile ‘race’…and [in a craft] which featured minimal scope for individual human control, piloting or authority…socialism effectively ceded any ideological power it ever possessed to the West by inadvertently adopting their ideals at the behest of sheer haste”

Another seminal essay from with the Adornists’ compendium was entitled ‘Limitations of the Human in Withstanding the Pressures of Governmental Ideals’. In it, author Rachel Mavisao focussed upon the specifics of the Thomas McGinty case and drew controversial conclusions as to his suicide and manslaughter of his fellow crewmates.

Mavisao directed her criticism in the same directions as Hooper, chastising the flawed and superficial aims of the space program and stating that

“…space flight fundamentally denies the human mind a freedom and ambiguity of meaning which it requires to flourish… Held captive in a tiny metal sarcophagus and conditioned like lab subjects…the human is reduced to an automaton.”

Mavisao argued forcibly and in great detail (her essay was some fifty pages long) that the case of McGinty proved unequivocally that mankind must not pursue any ambitions of mass space flight. She speculated that any future program whereby the population at-large might participate in space travel – as Andrew Golding and his supporters had hoped – would be disastrous and to the “utmost degradation of human individuality, the society and liberty”. It was deduced that many people could suffer the same fate as that which befell the shuttle commander1 and that “the human race would be miserably depreciated into creatively impotent and psychologically mangled assemblages” if made the reluctant accomplices to any space program of longevity. Mavisao saw the concept of society and human interactivity as fundamental to their well-being and continued ability to function productively. For her, space travel shattered these axiomatic conditions in an “unconscionable fashion”; offering nothing but “steel, steel and steel…truly the height of banality and isolation.”

Hooper’s and Mavisao’s essays became the focal point for a new philosophy on the suitability of mankind to travel into space through their formalising of the inverted relationship between man and machine which occurred in manned spaceflight. Man, they perceived, had become the tool of machinery (this machinery itself representing controlling power-wielders in society); no longer in control of their environment and operating solely in service of hierarchies of government.

Two years after the Adornists’ essays, an ‘anti-space’ stance was predominately resonating throughout World. This was partly due to the ever expanding influence of their work – which was pared-down, reprinted, simplified and re-worked in popular culture – but also because of the generally distasteful perception generated of the shuttle incident by the World’s media which dealt in unsavoury speculation and hyperbole. These two elements combined forged a powerful message which was seemingly welcomed by the public. Amongst this growing environment, a young Republican Senator from California stunned conservative Americans during an interview with CBS news and provided a further noteworthy voice which grasped the attention of yet more impressionable ears listening in.

Regarded as a mainstay of the Republican Party and touted as a potential future Party leader, Sarah Davis commented on the defunct U.S space program during an interview on a civil liberty issue which had arisen in California. Seizing an opportunity to add weight to a flowering debate, Davis criticised NASA, deriding its objectives and, most notably, making reference to socialists Hooper et al and their theories on the “man vs. machine” debate. Drawing heavily on the terminology of the Adornists’ work, Davis chastised any notion of a return to space – which had recently, despite the anger over McGinty, been again touted in newspaper article by a former NASA administrator – claiming that it “would not advance the development of human consciousness” and that much more could be learned from “utilising our own planet”. Even in the climate of universal disinterest and mistrust of space, a conservative politician referencing socialist academics was a considerable shock and served to highlight just how far manned-space flight had fallen as an outlet for human ingenuity and exploration or a potential future venture; briefly, it appeared, uniting ‘left’ and ‘right’ politics.

Some critics from the far-left however, saw those final words of the interview as a veiled attempt to retain focus on the exploitation of natural resources by a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who was merely joining a populist cause with ulterior motives. However, the overriding response to the high-profile interview was based upon the ideas pertaining to the lack of tangible ‘human’ purpose to a return to space as well as one word: “Earthist”. The bipartisan tone of Davis’ words illustrated – to millions of Americans – that it was not just the ‘far-left’ who now saw space as intrusive and morally repugnant; the conservative ‘right’ saw it as an expensive and pointless exercise which made no sense and devalued the individual and their rights.

The term ‘Earthist’ would become synonymous with the anti-space movement; a movement which – as Davis had illustrated graphically – bridged the divide between political parties throughout the western world – just as ecological concerns would some twenty-five years later – all of whom now wished to distance themselves from a governmental operation which was now inexorably tied to failure, disaster – and worst of all – the exploitation of mankind (the registered voter).

  1. By this point, it was now becoming widely accepted in academic psychological circles that some form of breakdown had occurred during McGinty’s flight as opposed to any pre-existing condition. A series of lengthy interviews with family, friends and colleagues had been conducted by a group of doctors from Stanford University and had failed to produce any firm evidence of psychological or emotional imbalance prior to McGinty’s departing upon the mission. Partial medical files retrieved had likewise failed to indicate any drug dependency or past dysfunction. Adding weight to a theory of ‘space psychosis’ (a term used in the report) was McGinty’s extensive time in orbital missions. Some theorists drew a connection between extended time in the cramped conditions of the shuttle and International Space Station and his breakdown. The study acknowledged a degree of speculation and imperfection to their conclusions due to a lack of any personnel files from the defunct space agency NASA which had been immediately classified and were therefore unusable.

 

 

Compromises 

 

The morning after his onerous harbour-side meeting, Professor Schwartz returned to his office at the IIR and set about completing an official report to be sent to the freshly established WSEA offices in Brussels.

At the end of an arduous week of scribbling, scrunching sheets of paper angrily and typing frantically, the professor completed his work – apprehensively commanding his computer to ‘send’ his vital writings to their destination.

Entitled ‘A Rationalisation of High Earth Orbit Vehicular Activity in Foresight of FTL Program’; the palaverously named document formalised the Professor’s position regarding the state of ready FTL drives whilst strongly recommending the ‘placebo’ program to WSEA which would appease sceptics and offer crucial space experience for any potential new recruits to their space program.

Rising from his small wooden desk – weathered, scratched and much more mundane than the one in his home – Schwartz stretched out like a cat basking in the sun and gazed out of the small window adjacent. The view through the Venetian blind – which he gently clawed downward to expand his view – showed him part of the test facility’s yard; on this morning a bustling group of people raced around enthusiastically from building to building across the concrete mesa.

On the left of his narrow envelope of vision stood a low, ashen coloured building with a long strip of uniform windows and various doors which were intermittently swinging open and closed as a constant traffic of people entered and exited. Through the centre of the scene ran the concrete courtyard leading to a set of high navy-blue steel gates some way off in the distance. Encroaching from the right was the barren scrubland of the desert’s edge – segregated by a heavy-woven steel fence with barbed wire adorning its high zenith – which deposited a blast of fine sand across the pathway during each frequent gust of wind which howled around the complex that morning.

Technicians in white coats and yellow hardhats walked briskly across his view with their clothing and hair flapping and twisting in the blasts of desert air; they headed to and from numerous other locations out his limited scope, gesticulating and conversing with passing colleagues and carting various items and packages back and forth.

A large khaki-green lorry was grunting and spluttering through the glistening steel gates up ahead; the blinding mid-morning sun flashed brilliantly from its chrome wing mirrors. Schwartz flinched momentarily as two men in overalls had to burst into a brief jog to avoid its mighty bulk as it rumbled towards his secluded position.

There was an evident and corporeal animation and energy on this fine morning below the pure blue sky which arced high above; an inconspicuous cluster of vague, fine clouds littered this splendid orb – like pencil lines scribbled on a sheet of crisp paper. Glancing up higher and squinting to evade the sun’s glaze, Schwartz noticed even more faintly visible high above were the now familiar geometric angles of the bio-dome trusses which housed this particular part of the globe; a criss-cross knitting of faint lines hanging in the atmosphere.

Schwartz however, could not share in the positive vibes of the IIR’s employees or the aesthetic beauty of the day. Releasing the silver blind slat by removing his finger – a puff of dust escaping and the aluminium clattered noisily – the Professor turned and began pacing the length of his small office. “Everything I have worked for”, he sighed quietly, “All my dreams for the future…I must now reconstruct…abandon?” he muttered erratically, the words partially being verbalised and partially remaining locked inside his thoughts. With the final words of his speech ended, he spread his arms by his side before allowing them to fall ungracefully on his hips and shrugged.

The irony of the day was not wasted on him and looking out at the energetic scene compounded the folly of his recent efforts. He had spent – all told – some twenty years researching, experimenting and finding private investment for space exploration in a world which would not countenance it – would not tolerate it –  and had now seemingly committed himself to doing everything he could to stall that same project when handed the opportunity to see it hastened into use; actively promoted and adored.

Suddenly, his wooden door resounded with three short taps before the handle rotated and peering through a narrow crack was the face of Dr Pichon.

“Joe? Can I come in?”

“Yea, of course Nina”, Schwartz replied, turning and beckoning her with his left hand like a police officer directing traffic.

“So did you get the report finished?” she enquired timidly, delicately pressing the door closed behind her as if keen to make her presence covert. Schwartz had telephoned her the day after his meeting with the WSEA representatives and she had worked during the week to supervise the facility in his absence and maintain a positive working environment regardless of the potentially dislocating events taking place in Schwartz’s office – his hands busily engaged in shaping the futures of every individual in those buildings.

“Yeah, sent it not too long ago. So that’s it now. We have got some time to work on those things…I hope”, he said, pointing in the vague direction of the factory, his watch tingling on his wrist as he slung his appendage into the air nonchalantly.

Sliding a triangular glass paperweight aside and deftly propping herself on his desk she said: “Don’t worry Joe, we will be able to fix the problems, Sam, Robert and I have been – “

“You know, we have worked for how many years? Nine? Ten? To get this thing off the ground?” He interrupted, ignoring Pichon’s words and pacing towards the window again, rapping his fingers on the sill. “This morning I had to send a report which confirmed the fallacy of my…our work. FTL travel has been our dream and when that exploration mission came back…the rocks they found…and how we built on their findings…the things we learned!” His voice was breaking fractionally and this incongruent speech halted as he turned towards Pichon with a few glistening teardrops swelling in his eyes. “And now we have to give it up”, he continued forlornly, “For how long I don’t know. Maybe forever. They’re like ants Nina. Crawling all over us! I just don’t know how we are going to get the technology up to scratch”. He again shrugged his shoulders, shook his head and glared at the ground. Pichon sat affixed, not making eye contact for she was slightly disquieted and unused to seeing her friend so visibly shaken.

“Joe, we’ve proved that the technology works. There have been successful tests and there will be more. There were bound to be setbacks”, She now rose and approached Schwartz tentatively in an attempt to console him. “Yes, the setbacks were worse than we anticipated and were a tragedy, but – “

“That’s the whole point. The whole fucking point Nina! Four lives we’ve lost; two human beings blown to bits…and they’re the lucky ones!” Briefly pivoting back towards the window, Schwartz struck the wall with the palm of his hand furiously.

Pichon reeled backward at this and paused a moment to evaluate the confusing outpouring which continued to emanate from her friend. “So what are you saying Joe? Do we just abandon what’s been done here? Throw away the work of hundreds of dedicated people? People who followed you and I out into this damn desert on a project which everybody said was a waste of time?! ‘Space is a dead duck’ they said, ‘there’s no future for space exploration’. Well we proved them wrong. So tell me Joe, what is our next step?” Losing her own composure now at the thought of her years of toil being devalued by the man in front of her, Pichon began pacing around the brown carpeted floor, her identification tags swinging erratically about her neck.

After a short silence – lest the relentless ticking of the square clock on the far wall – Schwartz turned from the window and – almost ignoring Pichon – threw himself back into his chair. “I just don’t know lately Nina” he reluctantly croaked, finally making eye contact with the fair-haired woman who now stood squarely in front of his desk. “I cannot help but think about the people we lost; they could still be alive you know, stranded millions of miles away – in a god-only-knows what kind of state! And Sam Jonsen…well you know all about him of course.”

“Yes of course I do Joe. I’ve read all the reports as you know. I actually spoke to his wife just a couple of weeks ago.”

“Soon-to-be ex-wife” Schwartz reposted piquantly, raising his finger authoritatively. Pichon bulked at this revelation, raising her eyebrows and grimacing slightly. “Yeah, she filed for divorce just last week. Louise mentioned it to me. Apparently she is claiming that he has become unbearable to live with; mood swings, depression…We both know him; him and his wife…For years! They were rock solid Nina and something happened to Sam on that mission; something damn strange which we’ve been unable to explain. He has changed and none of all our psychologists and psychiatrists can ascertain precisely why.”

“But why not Michelle Baleyard? Why hasn’t she been affected in the same way? They were both up there together; they both experienced the same FTL jumps.”

“I don’t know Nina!” Schwartz screeched, his voice rising in excitement again. “That’s the whole point! The entire conundrum which has been driving me insane for months now! We just don’t know enough about the effects of space travel…let alone faster-than-light travel. It’s all still a goddam mystery.” The ferociousness of his register faded away entropically with his final words, as if just the affirmation of them was devolving his powers.

“Oh don’t be so imprudent Joe! So we need to conduct more test flights then. Experiment with larger crew numbers and people of various demographics to see what the variables are”, Pichon replied austerely and with rebuke but thoughtfully also – retaining an acute awareness of his sombre mood – now sliding into the wooden chair which lay opposite the professor, the frame creaking momentarily.

“We just have not got the time. They’ve got their claws into us now and we’ve not got long until we need to start mass producing the FTL units. I think I’ve bought us time with my report but – “, he spluttered, shaking his head, his evermore greying hair wobbling fretfully.

“They will just have to wait longer then! We own the technology and the blueprints so surely the Institute has the control and can – “

“Oh please!” Schwartz scathed again, “of course they will get what they need. Open your eyes Nina! This WSEA is a multi-nation venture; every big economy backing one plan. A plan which fundamentally involves giving us a kick in the backside! We haven’t got a chance when they come calling. I mean, we have wealthy investors and backers here who have given us protection in the past; oil tycoons, telecommunications firms…but this is governmental now. Do you think our benefactors are going to oppose the U.S? China? Britain? And risk being hammered by taxation or trade embargos against us and this facility…or worse?” Schwartz swished his hand in a dismissive gesture like he was batting some infinitesimal fly from his vicinity; his voice stretching and straining towards the climax of this latest rant.

Another choking silence engulfed the small office, Schwartz pushed a pen around the desk like a scorned child and Pichon stared fixated on some random focal point on the wall behind Schwartz.

Presently rousing herself and straightening her posture, Pichon looked at Schwartz with a flash of conviction, determined to salvage what remained of the Professor’s optimism and pipe some positivity into the foul air of the room: “So all we can do then Joe is use the time we’ve got and run lab test after test to identify any flaws in the technology itself…Joe?” At this, the professor was shaken from his own internal quandary and raised his head attentively to Pichon. “I said, all we can do is deliver the hardware that performs to specifications. We cannot allow this to become too personal and accept the blame for the decisions of government and every problem we encounter along the way. We must try and retain our distance.”

“Yes I suppose”, Schwartz replied cautiously and lacking any due sense of conviction that Pichon was secretly hoping to illicit.

“Look Joe; you, I or anyone else was not to blame for what happened on those test flights. The crews were well trained and knew the risks”, Pichon rebutted again, sounding a little more callous than she wished to but lacking any other avenue with which to carouse Schwartz.

“Yes Nina but when the WSEA program kicks into full flow it will eventually be civilians who will become the crews of the FTL flights. It will be people like you and I who may have to deal with whatever the hell it is that happens to the human mind under those intense conditions up there”, and he raised his thumb upward, gesturing at a undefined angle above. “You know, I read an interesting essay many years ago when I was working in the U.S; it was written just after the shuttle accident…by a man called Hooper if I recall correctly. It argued that in spaceflight, the human mind became ponderous and actually nothing more than a component of the ship in which they travelle – “

“Joseph! You have got to get control of your feelings over this.” Pichon interrupted brusquely, desperately attempting to stem the professor’s increasing disintegration and ponderous, circular and philosophical ramblings. “We need you if we are going to do our jobs now and get these engines performing. You must not and cannot blame yourself for decisions which are out of your remit.” With this said, she leaned over the desk and placed her hand on top of Schwartz’s affectionately. Looking up at her reassuring smile, he remembered how long they had been friends before they embarked upon this project and this gladdened him somewhat. He remembered that she was his friend and not only his colleague and this provided a fractional glint of comfort.

Briefly slipping into his own recollections, Schwartz found solace in his memories; like the cooling sensation of heading indoors on a baking afternoon and lying in a darkened room – the curtains drawn and the breeze flowing through. Casting his mind back to a time before FTL drives, Mars, Dubai and WSEA filled the Professor’s mind with somehow refreshing images that realigned his emotions and restored equilibrium. He thought of his time back in Geneva; his weekend treks up to Mont Salève; the beautiful majesty of the sharp Autumn mornings – chilling gusts of wind rushing and swirling –  the sublime views looking north over the still-slumbering city. The pallet of colour, the crunching and crackling of the first fallen leaves beneath his feet; emerald canopies turning to rich crimson and orange. Schwartz loved the autumn in Europe – something he missed during his years in the unflinching desert – the change in nature; the reminder that life is forever adapting and advancing. It had made him secure in his own ambitions; his personal challenges in altering life – pushing the world forward.

Dragging himself back into the present against his better judgment, Schwartz smiled thinly at Pichon. “Yes. Yes you’re right Nina. I guess we have got a duty here to do what we can. And damn the politicians if they ignore us and plough ahead with their schemes. We will get into the factory this afternoon and begin tests.” His face still betrayed these defiant words and Pichon regarded him closely in this moment. He was looking very old these days and certainly the events of recent months had faded the sparkle in his green eyes a little and deepened the lines which emanated from his eyes and mouth. There seemed to be a quiet reluctance in his demeanor which she had never known before; well, not since…

Patting his hand again and standing up straight Pichon smiled back at him genially. “Thanks Joe, don’t lose faith. We’ve achieved amazing things here, don’t forget that. I will see you a little later, I’ve got to head out for a couple of hours; dentist appointment”, and she flashed her teeth to somehow cement her point in the strange way that people do.

Schwartz nodded his head affirmatively and Pichon headed towards the door. As she gripped the round chrome handle and turned it, the Professor called her: “You know Nina, it’s a strange and terrifying thing isn’t it?”

Twisting her head around – her body still partially facing the door – and regarding Schwartz slumped in his seat – green tie crumpled and hanging from his midriff – she replied: “What is Joe?”

“The feeling that you are losing control of something special to you, something intrinsic to your being…its almost like…losing ones own mind.”

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s