"Final system check"
The voice buzzed over the intercom built into the side of Captain Riley's helmet, and he gave a content sigh and took a healthy dosage of the filtered air flowing through the cabin. The headset, like everything else, smelt new and clean. Sterile, but Riley loved it all the same. This moment was what he'd lived for, what he'd spent a good chunk of his life training for. "Roger that, M.C."
He took another deep breath and closed his eyes briefly, smiling to himself. He was aware that over 30 other people were watching him via link up, and that he most likely looked like a right idiot sat there with his eyes closed, smiling. At the same time he didn't care, and also knew that no one would blame him for this display of contentment, because they knew exactly how hard he'd been working for the last 15 years, how hard everyone had been working. So he let out his breath slowly, focusing on the high pitched whistling sound he made doing this, and then opened his eyes once again. Time to get this thing going.
First he reached upwards to the large panel of switches, gauges and displays that arched around above the cockpit window. The cockpit was small enough for all the vital system controls to be in reach, but not too small as to rob you of your comfort. The Space Program thought of everything these days. Flicking the safety covers back, he proceeded to flip two shiny silver switches, and watched the two red lights blink brightly above each before flipping them back and replacing the covers.
"Fuel cell connection tests positive" he spoke into the microphone that curved round from the side of his head to a position just at the corner of his mouth. He didn't wait for a response. He repeated the process of removing safety covers on a series of switches in front of him on the 'dashboard', and then flipped them on one by one.
As soon as he moved the first one into the active position, a low buzzing sound began to vibrate throughout the cabin, increasingly getting stronger with each switch flipped. As he reached the fifth one, a large green light came to life somewhere to his right, and a short 5-second beep flowed from a hidden speaker.
"Engines 1 through 4 are engaged, stabilisers active, beginning reactor warm up sequence".
Reaching to his right, beneath the green light that had recently been activated, he took hold of a circle of raised metal with a handle set across its diameter. Clasping his hands around it, he didn't even feel the cold titanium through his circulated gloves. With a fluid set of motions, he slid the handle towards him, exposing a long solid cylinder, turned the whole thing clockwise 180 degrees, and then pushed it back into place. When this was done, a deep whirring started from behind him, and slowly grew in pitch, like some large turbine slowly picking up speed. And now he had to wait awhile.
For the first time in awhile he looked out through the screen of reinforced material, (some new and strange combination of plastic and glass he had been told), and gazed at the sight before him. Bright, endless amounts of stars dotted the cruel darkness of space, and below and slightly to the left, curved the form of Earth slowly rotating beneath him. Everything about what he saw enthralled him, the contrast of colours, the dim haze surrounding the Earth like a halo, the endlessness of it all. No matter how many times he saw it, no matter how many pictures and files and reports you read about it, every time he found his breath being taken away by the beauty of space, the magnificence of the glowing orb of Earth crowned by the most cruel environment known to man.
As he stared at the lower part of North America, and traced the long coasts of Florida, he found himself losing himself in memories: fond memories of why he had ever gotten involved in the Space Program, and Project Casimir. He remembered the first briefing that he'd ever attended, the one that outlined what the whole project was about. It was simple really: Wormholes. To harness the great cosmic powers of wormholes to travel into the stars in ways no man had ever thought possible. And now, sitting in the cockpit of the most state of the art piece of technology ever developed, he was to be the first one to travel further than anyone. Ever.
"The principles are all set out in front of us already", the voice of Professor Gordon spoke clearly to him from his memory, permeating the tides of the past, and it felt for a moment as if he were sitting in that small conference room, a trainee again, accompanied by dozens of his fellow hopefuls.
"But there were two main obstacles that had to be over come before we could even start initiating people like yourselves into the program". The Professor had cast his gaze over each cadet in turn, those brilliant blue eyes eventually meeting Riley's own.
"Now those two obstacles have been dealt with, Black holes, and Wormholes. And that, gentlemen, is why you're here".
Riley could remember the wide grin that had spread across the Professors face right then, and at the time he hadn't known what was so funny. Eventually, however, he had learnt that the old Professor hadn't found anything amusing, but had been living with the knowledge that everything that those young cadets would experience from that point on would probably amaze and baffle them to almost madness. It had taken Riley a good deal of time to comprehend the implications and understand the principles of what they'd be trying to do, but eventually he got it, and now knew it like the back of his hand.
It all depended; he had learnt, on Black holes. Those space maelstroms famous for feeding on all matter within its grasp and never letting go, devouring planets, suns, and even light. He had known about black holes, but he was soon to learn a lot more about their characteristics other than their greedy feeding habits.
He was taught that they also bent space-time, due to their infinite density, to its breaking point, creating a deep pockmark, complete with a tiny rip at the bottom, and Riley had Einstein's grid diagrams firmly etched in to his subconscious. It was these diagrams that he could see at night, whilst trying to sleep. That grid of space-time being weighed down in to a funnel by some impossible force, further and further until it would stretch no further.
This rip was the key to wormholes, because that tiny pinprick in existence was connected to another tiny rip caused by another black hole, and essentially all black holes in the universe. The Einstein-Rosen Bridge. This Bridge, the wormhole, is what scientists had craved for endlessly, and it was this craving that had originally given birth to the project.
Of course this would prove problems in itself, as he'd discovered in countless simulations. The problem with wormholes is that the channel created between two black holes is minuscule, smaller than the centre of a single atom, and remains open for only a fraction of a second. Even light, the fastest entity in the universe would not have enough time to pass through. This means, inevitably, that anything wanting to travel through would be ripped apart by the black holes immense gravitational forces.
The problem was finding a way to hold open the "mouth" of the wormhole, wide enough for an object to pass through it. This was achieved by Antigravity, a strange and fickle thing, and you need a whole lot of it to achieve the purpose hundreds of scientists back at NASA wanted it to achieve.
And then came the breakthrough. A remarkable piece of technology was designed, based on experiments performed in the mid 20th century, which was able to, thanks to the quirks of quantum mechanics, produce antigravity. The basic principle was that two flat metal plates held a hair's width apart generate a small amount of negative energy.
After decades of hard labour by the finest scientists involved on the project, and millions of dollars, the Casimir Engine was born, capable of creating previously un- thought of amounts of negative energy, and the crowning achievement of the 21st century. This fabulous scientific breakthrough meant that enough energy could be created to theoretically hold the mouth of a wormhole firmly in place. And here sat Riley, in the most expensive and sophisticated spaceship ever built, fitted with the Casimir Engine, and the power to create a black hole at his will.
Another 5-second long tone stirred him from his memories, and once again he spoke into his microphone, "Warm up sequence complete, initiating final launch stage"
'"Acknowledged, Icarus 1, all systems are green, you're ready to go", there was a brief pause and a momentary crackle from the speaker, 'have a good one".
It went silent again, and Riley chuckled at the break of formality, and gave a hearty thumb's up to the camera on his left.
"Releasing docking clamps", There was an audible clunk from behind him, and he lurched forwards slightly in his seat as the ship rocked sluggishly from what had been its home for the first 5 years of its existence. "Activating false gravity, and gravitational dampeners'".
He felt a sudden and noticeable tug downwards, but the lurching of the ship receded. Reaching forward with one hand, he eased his fingers around the control stick that rested between his knees, and with the other flipped a few more switches, checked a gauge measuring fuel tank pressure, then grasped the throttle control, a handle shaped slide that glided up and down. Slowly, he eased the throttle from its neutral position upwards, and the ship jumped to life. There was a deep rumble from within the ship, and it began to move forwards gently.
The ship itself was shaped a lot like a long, sleek dart, to prevent any friction caused within the wormhole by unknown objects, and was traditionally white in colour. The engines were situated at the back, in two columns on either side where the dart shape curved out into a short rectangular block. The columns consisted of two engines each, and now all four of them began to glow, slowly growing in intensity from the ships standard ion propulsion, as he pushed the throttle further upwards. Between these two columns was a large outlet, which funnelled off slightly. This was used for the ships other, much newer mode of acceleration. As he banked the ship around slowly, the place where he had been living and working for the past 10 years came into view in front of him.
It wasn't the first time he'd seen the International Space Station from the exterior, but it was still an impressive feat of engineering. It spanned approximately 2 kilometres from one end to the other, and was about a quarter of a kilometre wide. At the beginning of the 21st century it had been small and (relatively) simple, but now over a full century later, it had become a bit of a giant in orbit. Mankind had made many large technological leaps and bounds in just the last century, one breakthrough coming after the other, as if someone had opened the proverbial Pandora's box of science.
One of those great breakthroughs was the drastic progress in the production of antimatter, a process that had now been refined to an art form and was capable of creating moderately large amounts of the volatile substance. This antimatter, coupled with the state of the art beam engine located somewhere behind Riley, deep within the ship, allowed travel at tremendous speeds. And speed was definitely essential today; he had to get a fair distance away from earth, or any planet for that matter.
He arched the ship away from the I.S.S., stealing one last glimpse before he was facing empty space again. The ship began to pick up speed, and out of the corner of the screen he could see the moon, hovering there peacefully in the distance. He'd be beyond that soon, in fact, in about 7 and a half hours he'd be beyond the designated testing zone, and at a reasonably safe distance. As he moved the throttle to max thrust, he leaned backwards in his chair and reached above him again, turning two dials to full and flipping a switch.
Again, another shuddering whirring noise shook through the ship, indicating that the beam core had been activated. He waited a few seconds for the ships computer to automatically check the processes of the engine, and during this time he checked his course, making slight alterations in direction with acute taps of the joystick. Three green lights lit up one after the other on his dashboard, giving him the all clear. He took a deep breath, recalling the simulations and the predicted force that he would experience in the few seconds the gravitational dampeners struggled to compensate. Composing himself, he reached up and flipped back the safety case of a switch next to his control stick, and flicked it into the on position. There were a few seconds of nothingness, apart from a faint crackling sound from behind him.
Suddenly there was a massive jolt as the ship shot forwards at an alarming rate, matter and antimatter annihilating each other violently within the ship, a jet of super hot particles erupting from the large centre ring at the back of the ship, and Riley was squeezed back in to his seat, as if some cosmic giant was stomping him with an impossibly large boot.
The Dampeners struggled to compensate, and it felt as if his head would soon crack and explode, but then all of a sudden he felt the force against him lessen, and slowly as the ship shook around him he slumped back in to his chair, gravity seemingly returning to normal inside his cabin. He breathed a sigh of relief, and looked out at the vastness of space, that still seemed unmoving. The stars were very far away, for now, so the only thing that was moving a great deal faster was the moon, which began elegantly growing on his screen, and was soon long behind him.
He double-checked his course into the computer, which would take him not along the ring of orbits around the sun but 'down' and right away from the direction of planets. Switching to Autopilot, all Riley would have to do now is wait. And when you're stuck in a small compartment with only yourself to keep you company, waiting can be hard. Folding the visor of his helmet and making it airtight, he then leaned back once again, closed his eyes and rested in his memories once more.
He was awoken by a soft but loud jingle, irradiating from all around him, indicating that he had arrived at his destination, the computer having automatically shut down the beam core. He cursed himself slightly for being so unprofessional and falling asleep, but knew that he had been working extraordinarily hard to meet the launch deadline, so he cut himself a little slack. As he looked out the screen, all he saw was darkness and stars. If he were to turn the ship round now, Earth would be just a strange dot in a sea of black. But he was too excited and focused now to waste time doing such things, and was eager for what was ahead.
As he fiddled with the controls, a small hatch opened seamlessly from the front of the Icarus, about 2 foot square, and upon pulling the trigger on his control stick, a small sphere like object erupted from the hatch. This sphere was jet black, so almost invisible in space, and was attached to a long length of cable, connected still to the ship. The sphere continued on its path outwards, and when it got to a certain distance it began glowing red, making it quite clear out in the dark. Riley knew the glow meant it had passed the 400-metre mark, and so he stopped the spheres progress with another click of the trigger.
Now, the next part had to be done in perfect timing, as he had done many times in simulation, or the results would be disastrous. He brought the Casimir Engine online, and prepped it ready for firing. He knew what he was about to do truly was a break through in science, and also knew the great risks involved. A lot of thought had been put into what would happen if anything went wrong, and there was a lot that could go wrong. There was a simple fact: he didn't know what he'd experience whilst inside a wormhole, if he could even form one, or what was on the other side of the wormhole. This all depended on whether the black hole he was about to create didn't draw him in and tear him apart before he had a chance to fire the Casimir.
No going back.
He slid a wide panel open on his left side, which exposed a large green button, with a C that had been affectionately drawn onto its surface by one of the designers of the craft. This was it, the moment of truth, his future rested upon this moment, and he was going to face it head on. They'd call him a hero, a true man of science, one more nail in the coffin called religion, as his old Professor would of put it. He clicked the trigger a third time.
The red glowing sphere erupted ahead of him, a dazzling explosion of blue and red, which violently swirled outwards, and then just as suddenly imploded upon itself. And it didn't just stop there. It collapsed in on itself, and didn't stop collapsing. The red and blue swirled like coloured waves in some strange ocean, and then folded in on its self un-dramatically until there was only darkness there, a pinpoint of nothingness that then began to expand at a few feet per second. Riley saw the yawning mouth of this beast and watched for a few moments in awe. He then quickly pulled himself together, before it would be too late. He already felt a strange lurching feeling in the pit of his stomach as the black hole began to take hold, getting ever bigger, interfering with his ships artificial gravity, and the stars outside slowly shifted to one side as the Icarus was dragged forwards slightly, banking to one side.
He spared no more time in slamming his fist into the large green button, bringing into action the mighty Casimir Engine. Along the cable that had once attached the sphere to the ship, who's end had become the first man made thing to be devoured by a black hole, and was slowly dragging the rest of the ship in with it, erupted in a blue lightning like energy. This energy snaked up into the jaws of the growing monster and then firstly disappeared into the darkness. It then seemed to ooze back out from the mouth of the black hole, swirling along its edges at alarming speeds, looking like some strange cosmic plug hole, and then surrounded the entire thing, stunting its growth. The electric blue colour framed the black hole, previously hard to see, now a clear sight to Riley.
The wire constantly conducted negatively charged Gravitons into the black hole via an extremely complex system of something akin to advanced fibre optics. As the wormhole stabilised, the lurching feeling in his stomach eased off as the Anti-gravitons began to dilute the gravitational pull of the black hole, and Riley thought it now safe to look, even if just for a brief time, at the beauty of the whole thing.
The thing that had baffled scientists for over a century, the destroyer of entire planets, mayhap even galaxies. The thing that had been once deemed uncontrollable and chaotic, now there, swirling almost serenely in front of his very eyes, now surely only about 200 metres away from where he was sitting. Yes, he was going to be deemed a hero after this one. "To boldly go where no man has gone before", a line he had remembered from his modern history class; strange, but it was fitting. With that he eased forwards on the throttle, into the mouth of the tamed wormhole, and passed into the unknown.
A kaleidoscope of blue light flooded violently in to the ships cabin, and the blue swirling madness that encompassed him as he crossed the threshold seemed to Riley in those first few moments as indescribable. No words conceived in the universe could correctly describe it, simply because what he was experiencing was not part of the universe. His mind, in a feeble attempt to protect itself from insanity, began to try and form some way of describing it in ways that were confined to Riley's mental boundaries. It was like looking down a swirling blue corridor of many open doors, each door leading on to different places in time and space, and onto more corridors with doors, and on and on as far as the eye could see. The ordered chaos reflected upon his visor and across his face, and he found his eyes unable to stop twitching in all directions to keep up with the madness.
He no longer felt as if he was attached to his body, but rather it felt as if he were watching a recording from a camera placed where his head should have been. Warning alarms and flashing lights blared out at him from all around the cabin. The whole ship was shaking violently around him, but he didn't even seem to be attached to that anymore either. It was as if it was there, but not physically around him, just a collection of atoms that were loosely formed in the shape of the ship around him, and that if he were to reach out and try and touch the consoles, his hand would pass effortlessly through it, like grains of sand on a beach.
The blue around him started to take on more colours, then more and more. Reds, yellows, greens, blues, oranges, pinks, purple, emerald, even white and black. Every single shade of colour imaginable, and he embraced it as the single most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Then colours he had never seen before started to appear and dance before him, and as he looked at them, the space where his head both was and wasn't began to ache, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. All the colours started to form shapes, shapes of everything there ever was, at any time or any place. He tried to speak, but the words made no sound, but instead visible yellow strings of nonsense words flowed from his mouth, shattered into an infinite amount of miniature universes that Riley peered in to like some meaningless god, and then collapsed in on them selves. If he had time to think, he would of wondered whether those universes held people, countless people, and that maybe he himself came from a universe formed by the words of someone faced with the crowded void of infinity.
As all about him began to shake so violently he could feel the very fabric of everything begin to crumble, the view window before him seemed to fall away, not break but actually peel back, sink upon itself forming a hole of pure emptiness, except this emptiness was not black, and contained the formulae of all possible things.
Riley's bloodshot, shuddering eyes opened wider than should be possible, and he started to cry at the sight he saw within that infinite light. He raised a hand that was crumbling into everything up to that white light, and brought it up and down, caressing what he saw there. He closed his tear drenched eyes, unknowing that the next time he'd open them he would have to confront things that would challenge the very fabric of his mind.
The visor of his helmet splintered open as he held his hand aloft.
Riley touched the face of God.