Hazards of Faster-Than-Light Travel
by David Rogers
Nobody had heard from the Nostromo, an FTL ship designed for exploration and stellar surveys, for months. Repeated subspace radio messages went unanswered. The Nostromo had been sent on what should have been a routine observe-and-report mission to the star system HR 8210, also known as IK Pegasi. The system was of interest because it was a close binary that varied in luminosity. From Earth, for those with sharp eyes and a view far from city lights, IK Peg appeared as a sixth magnitude star just barely visible to the unaided eye. I was commissioned to command the Schiaparelli to go and investigate.
There are a lot of hazards to FTL travel, including some they don’t tell you about in Engineering and Command School. One of them is boredom.
Even at FTL speeds, the trip of one hundred and fifty light–years to HR 8210 takes long enough so you find time on your hands. Barring the unexpected, the crew has days or weeks with nothing urgent to do. My favorite way to relax is to watch old science fiction movies and TV shows--cheesy aliens, space opera, and so on. The less realistic, the better. I’m not one to worry about scientific accuracy in shows that are clearly presented as fiction. So what if the space ship goes whoosh as it zips past the screen? It’s not a documentary. So what if it’s ridiculous to think all intelligent extraterrestrials are fluent in Earth languages? If you wanted to read subtitles, you’d just get the book.
Or my favorite false trope–the young couple on their blanket on the grass, taking in a romantic view of the night sky; one lover tells the other how stars are very far away, so a lot of them allegedly explode up or burn out before their light can reach Earth. Thus, concludes the know-it-all, a lot of those stars are not there anymore. In reality, the bright stars you see with the unaided eye are a few dozen or a few hundred light-years away. Too far to ride your bike, but a hundred years is a microsecond in the life of a star. You can rest assured they are mostly all still right where you left them, last time you looked.
But who cares? It’s entertainment. And we all know what the young couple really have on their minds. It has little to do with how fast hydrogen atoms fuse into helium atoms.
Another hazard of FTL travel is, to put it simply, you can’t see where you’re going. Or you can, of course, but it may not look the same when you get there as it did when you started. The physicists will tell you all about it, if you ask, using math normal people don’t understand. What it comes down to is, if you go somewhere a light year away, but you take only a week to get there, that’s over eleven months of changes at your destination that you couldn’t see before you started. A lot can happen in eleven-plus months.
I know. It gives me a headache, too. That’s why I run the ship and leave numbers for computers and the people who love them.
The time hazard is minimal if your course is carefully plotted in advance, before you push the FTL button. You can’t know for certain what you’ll find on the other end, but you can predict with confidence. It’s like looking both ways in your car before you pull out in traffic.
Did someone ask about best laid plans? Our first clue came when we were less than half a light year from our destination. We dropped back to sublight to assess the situation. A debris field lay just ahead. I gave orders to launch a shuttle and inspect whatever was out there.
The first officer called over the ship’s intercom. “Captain, you’re going to want to see this.”
I headed down to the shuttle bay. Recovered wreckage covered the deck. The largest fragment read No—before it broke off. I recognized part of the Nostromo’s quarterboard.
While I was processing what I saw, Chandra, the chief astrophysicist came in. “Afraid I have more bad news, Captain,” she said. “IK Pegasi is not what we thought. Not at all.”
We would have known what to expect if we’d intercepted messages the Nostromo sent before it was destroyed. You can’t receive subspace messages when you’re traveling at FTL speeds, though. The subatomic particle chasers say distortion of frequency and wavelength at the quantum level, due to increased curvature of space-time, make it impossible to reintegrate messages in a meaningful pattern. The point is, no matter how you do the math, at FTL you’re incommunicado.
As soon as we dropped to sublight, we read the missing messages just fine. They confirmed what Chandra said: The Nostromo had arrived just in time to see the main sequence component of IK Peg blow itself to bits, taking its incredibly massive, compact dwarf companion star with it. Of course, that explosion shredded the Nostromo, too.
Marconi, our communications chief, says the Nostromo’s last transmissions were trapped by the ridiculously powerful gravitational field of the black hole and are likely to echo around the event horizon for millennia. I asked how that could happen, but the explanation quickly devolved into the kind of math that uses a lot of Greek letters. I didn’t really follow it.
The supernova’s initial shock wave has dissipated enough so that we survived, barely–just long enough to face the inevitable. Nothing is left of the system but the expanding planetary nebula of debris. Nothing except the black hole that is slowly but surely dragging us toward its center. Not even the FTL drive is powerful enough to pull us away.
Marconi tells me the black hole distorts ordinary transmissions directed away from the singularity worse than FTL travel, but they think they might get a short message out. By focusing the signal to a tight beam and shooting it around the circumference of the event horizon, they can harness gravitational energy from the singularity. Thus, the signal should be amplified a thousandfold.
“What would you like the message to say?” they ask. “The shorter and simpler it is, the better its chances of getting through.”
“In that case, make it just four words,” I say. “Don’t come after us.”
Two lost ships are enough. No need for a third.
I also gave them the more detailed version to send after the first, in case our luck holds out that long. If you’re reading this, it means we got lucky.
I guess I should have paid better attention to those TV tropes–even the silly ones. I might have seen this coming.