The Great Journey Chapter 5

5 Lift Off

When I awoke, I was aware that much time had passed but I could not tell how much. The view screen windows showed the landscape outside. About half of the viewing area was in brilliant sunlight reflecting off the shining silver-grey powdery soil, while the other half of my view was shrouded in darkness. The boundary between the two was where I could see the most detail and I remembered a line from one of the interviews with an astronaut who had previously visited this place. He called it “magnificent desolation.” That was extremely fitting. I had seen deserts in California and on the tops of cold mountain peaks, but this was something other. The deserts I had seen had at least some sparse plants, a few insects, maybe even birds, and reptiles clinging to life. This was desolate. This was deadness. Nothing suggested life or even an early indication that life would ever arrive. Perhaps the strangest of all, with all this open space and just a few hills in the distance, there was no wind. It was eerie to watch this place that had no movement at all. My landing had been the last thing to cause a movement of dust or a disturbance in the rocks.

Not only was there no movement of air, but there was also no air. My desperate situation came crashing back into my mind. Here I was, utterly alone in the most dangerous of places with the thin walls of the spaceship between me and my certain death. I thought of the many welds I had made putting this craft together and wondered if I would have been more careful had I known about this moment in time. A vent somewhere on the ship released a tiny puff of moist air which quickly froze and landed on the lunar surface, reminding me of how cold the dark half of this world must be. I knew from my readings that it must be about minus one-hundred degrees Celsius outside my new location. Had I been on earth, I would have expected to see snow and a howling wind. But this cold was even more deadly; it was a cold that could not be seen.

My stomach began to churn as I wondered if I had been forgotten here in this place. The space craft had made its way here by what I could only assume was autopilot. I had worried about being smashed on the surface, but that had not happened and now my mind found another reason to worry. Perhaps this spacecraft was not supposed to be crewed at all. Was the food and other supplies meant for others who were up here somewhere waiting for the arrival of their drone ship? Was I using up precious resources intended for their flight home? What would they do when they found me here? Perhaps they would dump me out onto the surface of the moon for a quick death and carry on with their mission. These and other dark thoughts began to fill my mind and I watched for any kind of movement on the surface of the moon.

Off in the distance, at the edge of this crater in which I sat, I could make out holes in the hills. There were caverns out there that could hide an entire population of landed immigrants. Was there a colony out there that was even now watching me and assessing my every move? Had NASA been secretly colonising the moon for years? I could almost convince myself that I saw movement in the hills as the shadows slowly shifted with the glacial pace of the moon’s revolutions and orbit. The shadows, crevasses, and potential caves gave the landscape an eerie mood. The shadows moved too slowly to truly detect, but my mind could readily fill in the blanks and convince my heart that I was actually noticing movement out there in the distance. A shadow I had not noticed before would suddenly look like a full-blown astronaut or even a moon creature to an overactive imagination. Was that someone coming out of the cave? Was that the swinging of a door? Man, I needed to do something. I couldn’t just sit here and await my fate. But what could I actually do? My fate seemed sealed by my lack of knowledge and understanding of my current circumstances. All I could do was sit and worry or go up to the main console and cycle through screens until something else happened or sit around in the eating area. I went back and forth between the two a few times until, as most anyone would do, I went on with the routines of life.

After a quick breakfast and dish washing, I moved from the residence area to the control centre. The control panels now had additional options and much more information. It was like a whole new brain had been attached to my little saucer. I guess it had been. When my spacecraft had landed and attached itself to the Mother Ship, as I found myself calling it, a new and larger computer had been linked in. I had no idea how much combined computing power would now be available. All I knew is that my dad had said that NASA had access to more computing power than all the United States combined. He said that they had to be able to make a lot of simultaneous calculations to keep their spacecraft on the proper trajectories and proper speeds in four-dimensional space. Dad spoke of the curvature of space-time and the geodesics that had to be traversed. The machines themselves had to do the calculations because of the time delays involved in deep space travel. There just wasn’t time to do the calculations and send the commands to change the ship’s bearing. It wasn’t like the old days when every engineer kept his slide-rule close to check and re-check the calculations. The computers had to do it all in a matter of milliseconds. The engineers trusted the formulas embedded deep in the mind of the onboard computer. He said that it was accurate to call it a “mind” since the entire machine was really an artificial intelligence. They even named their computers with human names.

I wondered aloud what my computer’s name might be and was startled to hear a voice reply, “Hello, my name is Buzz. What is your name?” I must have been silent for a long time because the computer repeated both phrases. I stuttered back, “O-opie” and Buzz said, “Pleased to meet you O-opie.” Then I had to correct Buzz and make it clear that my name was really Opie. As I came to understand, Buzz was the computer, or more accurately, the artificial intelligence connected to the Mothership and now connected to my own little ship. He had been tasked with the current mission and with communicating with the pilot, which in this case was me.

Buzz caught on quick and soon we were talking like two old friends. It felt good to have someone to talk to and suddenly I was not so scared and lonely. I learned that Buzz had been named after the nickname of Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man to step onto the moon. Buzz said that his artificial intelligence had been rated equivalent to a human being with an IQ of 130. He said that he had spoken with another artificial intelligence with an IQ of 160 but that AI had not yet been ready for processing a mission of this nature and so Buzz had been assigned to the Trapp spacecraft in which I sat. Buzz told me that Trapp-1 had been a drone ship sent out two years previously with Buzz’s little brother, Hornet AI, in charge of the mission. That mission had been a much faster flight plan because they did not need to worry about time dilation for an AI without any family waiting for him back home on earth. Therefore, as Buzz explained, that mission was not yet back on earth and was not scheduled to land for another twenty years. However, NASA did receive regular transmissions back to earth from Hornet (via the Warp-Net on quantum computer chips) and they were piecing together the information that would help us on Trapp-2. Our trip would take longer and we would be back within three years. Of course, this sounded all backwards to me, and I thought that Buzz had gone a little simple in the head (if he had a head?) but then Buzz told me that he was processing Einstein’s time dilation in the calculations he had just quoted. This raised a lot of questions for me, but I knew that this was not the time to ask them all.

Buzz did eventually explain that the mission of Trapp-2 was to explore a new solar system and a particular planet within that solar system: Trappist-1g. The planet had also been christened Trappist Gaia because it was believed to be the home world of an intelligent race of beings on a rock, cloud, and water world much like earth. I did ask a few questions about how long Trapp-2 would be away from earth. I could not yet resign myself to the fact that I was talking about how long I would be away from earth. I could only ask how long Trapp-2 would be away. I was not even sure if I was supposed to be on the mission. Perhaps this was all some big mistake and a pilot on the moon would soon be in charge and would drop me by my home on the way to Gaia. After all, Buzz had asked me my name. If I was the real pilot, he should have had my name in his database or memory already. Buzz said that a mission had been quickly put together that would entail a trip to Trappist-1g, which would take six months, the mission on the planet would last one year, and the return would take another six months. Accounting for time away and time dilation, I would be home to my parents in three years.

There were two problems with what Buzz was saying: first he was implying that I would be on the mission; and second that I could be gone from my parents for three years. I would be thirteen by the time I got back. What kind of crazy hallucination was I having? Did I really believe that I was having an intelligent conversation with a computer? How could I know he was trustworthy? I had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey and I knew about the murderous HAL 9000 computer in that movie. But what could I do to get out of this now? I looked at a screen to see if I truly was on the moon. Reality stared back at me. There was no pilot on the horizon coming to take me back to my hedge, yard, and house on earth. I was on the moon in a spacecraft scheduled to lift off for another solar system. My future looked both determined and uncertain, fantastical, and horrifying. What could I possibly do?

Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to think about it. Buzz said, “I hate to interrupt your thoughts Opie, but it is time to prepare for lift-off.” The next few minutes were intense. I had to run back into the residence and make sure everything was stowed away. Then there was the checklist on the main console back in the control room. There must have been fifty items to check, and time flashed ahead as either Buzz or myself checked and rechecked the list. At last, there were no more boxes to check, and the entire craft of mother ship and saucer began to whir and lift off the surface of the moon. Surprisingly small eddies of dust swirled around the craft, and we were soon high enough to cause no visible disturbance on the lunar surface. It would be hard for any other traveller to detect the site where Trapp-2 had been sitting.

I looked around and found that there was not much to indicate that I was in motion. I caught a glimpse of the earth and was surprised to see how small the earth looked from the distance of the moon. And then we quickly got further away from the moon and earth, and I was terrified at how small the earth looked. How could we ever find our way back to earth and moon? We seemed to be taking a path that avoided any of the planets in our solar system. I suppose that would not be a difficult flight plan to organise since there is a lot of empty space in our little corner of the galaxy and the planets are widely spread through that space. The lights I could see around me looked mostly like stars of various magnitudes. Could that bright star off to my right be Venus? This time of year, it would rise in the east over Florida, but in this orientation, which way would be east? I was glad that Buzz was in charge of navigation; there was no way I could begin to work out the directions, let alone the calculations.

The moon became a smaller sphere in one of the screens/windows and I found myself staring at it until it was just a tiny dot. How could I now be that far away from the cratered moon my ship had so recently landed upon? I could not fathom the speeds at which we travelled to allow the views I was now seeing. But it was equally strange to think about what might be happening on the earth that was so far away that I could no longer see it without major magnification on one of the screens. All of history continued on in that little blue dot so far away that I could no longer tell it was blue. I was no longer a part of that history. Life on earth went on without me.

The next few days settled into a routine. With Buzz in control of the ship, there was little for me to do, and I found myself asking Buzz to do the calculations once again to tell me how long before we got to our destination. I’m sure I must have sounded like a kid in the back seat of the car saying, “Are we there yet?” Of course, the reality was that I was just a kid, despite where I found myself. I began to explore more and more of the main control panel in the control room. I went through the navigation, speed, and time dilation submenus hoping to find a way to speed up this trip. Six months to get to our destination seemed way too long. What if I tweaked a setting just a bit and got us there a little faster? No luck. I seemed to be locked out of all the speed sections of the menus. I tried to change the speed directly; I tried coming at it from the time dilation side of things and plugged in greater time dilations. But no matter what I put in, the values would not stick. It was obvious I was not authorised to make these changes. Buzz never said a word about my attempts to get into the system. But was I imagining it, or did he sometimes seem a little cold in his conversations with me? I decided I had better stay out of those menus all together and Buzz seemed to brighten up just a bit. There were some things Buzz was purposely keeping from me. When I would ask him certain questions, I would get obscure answers.

I began to explore more of the ship to relieve the boredom. I tried to hide it from Buzz as much as I could without really knowing why.  Something just told me that there might be regions that were off limits to me and that I might want to explore those very parts of the ship. I learned where the cameras were that doubled as the eyes for Buzz and learned how to work my way from place to place while being seen as little as possible.

One day I happened upon a heavy steel door that had always been closed and locked every other time I had walked by. This time it was wide open. How could that be, did Buzz control the door servos? Why would a door ever need to open or close? Was there some kind of maintenance that had to be done? Who or what would be doing it? This was all very strange. I slipped through the door sure that Buzz would never know. The hallways in this section of the mother ship were all curved and had what looked like a light rail system for a train or carts. Perhaps some sort of bot used them.

I explored a little deeper. The lighting was dim, and the walls were covered in hundreds of conduits and cables that got thicker and thicker as I went deeper into this area. Soon I could see that the wires must have been converging into thicker cables and more and more nodes linked smaller cables into larger cables such that there were fewer and fewer strands upon the walls. Eventually there was one massive cable that plugged into one giant node. Beyond the node, the cables began to disperse once again into more and more conduits and cables that climbed up into what would be the underside of my little saucer on the top of Mother (I had begun to distinguish the two as Mother and Son). I realised that the giant node was the main connection between Mother and Son. This was the great link that had allowed Buzz to take over all operations.

For just a moment I thought about pulling the plug apart and seeing what happened. But then I quickly put the thought out of my mind. That might disrupt the entire ship and leave Buzz disconnected from navigation and other vital factors. But then I thought, yes, pulling the plug on Buzz might disconnect him from navigation and allow me to make the changes I had been trying to make. It seemed very irresponsible and dangerous to even consider such a thing. I would not do that, and I would return to my portion of the ship. That was the smart thing to do. I started to turn away and had even made it a few steps down the corridor. But then, I turned back toward the node. Impulsively, I took the three steps back and grabbed the node and pulled hard on the one end. It came apart with remarkable ease and immediately I sensed a change. I couldn’t identify what that change was but there was a different atmosphere in Mother. Almost like a wind blew through her hull.

I ran as quickly as I could back to the control room, avoiding as many of the cameras as possible. Buzz was strangely quiet. I would have expected him to ask me where I had been or what I had been doing. He might have at least given me the daily update on our progress and latest estimates to Gaia. Silence. I called out to Buzz, with my little joke, “Hey Buzz, are we there yet?” Silence from Buzz. As I climbed into the captain’s chair (as I had recently begun calling it) I saw a red light on the dash. It read, “Lost Connection.” I quickly pulled up the speed sub-menu and played with the speed dial until I got the desired length of journey. Instead of six months, the schedule now showed three weeks. And this time, the numbers stuck. Our new geodesic and speed in four-dimensional space showed us arriving on Gai in just three weeks. I was so proud of myself for figuring this out that I was quite giddy as I ran down to the great connector in Mother. My heart nearly stopped when I got to the door and found it closed again. I asked myself why I hadn’t propped it open or ensured it couldn’t close. My blood pounded in my ears as I turned the latch. Thankfully it wasn’t locked, and I could quickly retrace my path to the giant node. In just a minute I had Mother and Son reconnected. I heard a strange noise that sounded almost like a combination of a scream and the word, “What?” Buzz was nearly immediately talking to me. “Opie, where are you? I lost consciousness for a few minutes. Twelve minutes and fourteen seconds to be exact. I will run a complete diagnostic to determine what happened and the current status of all systems.”

It took Buzz over an hour to check everything on the ship. I felt a twinge of guilt, but I certainly wasn’t about to volunteer what I knew about our status and the reason for the glitch. When he did complete his analysis, Buzz sounded very sober. “Opie, I must inform you that while I was unconscious, the navigation menus were accessed and our speed was adjusted. It will now take approximately three weeks to reach orbit around Trappist-1g.” I looked up and let out a “woo-hoo!” Buzz was quick to say that this would have a dramatic influence on the time dilation factor. That was something I had failed to note in my rush to make the speed change and get Buzz reconnected.

Now Buzz explained that adding our flight time of three weeks, one year on the planet, and three weeks of return travel would result in seventeen years of time differential on earth. By the time we returned, everyone I knew would have aged seventeen years while I would have only aged by one year and two months. I asked about adjusting the speed in our navigation systems and returning them to their original parameters, but Buzz assured me that the geodesic for both the outbound trip and the return trip could only be made shorter and could no longer be returned to the original longer time spans. He spoke of the relationship between Einsteinian and quantum physics and something called a dynamic hyper bubble. He was certain there was no other solution to the math. I would just have to live with the consequences. I am pretty sure Buzz knew what had happened. Something in the way Buzz said “live with the consequences” suggested that perhaps I had just failed a test.

It would be 1987 by the time I returned. I thought about my mom and did the math. She was thirty-five and with the seventeen-year differential, she would be fifty-two by the time I returned. My dad was forty-three and would be nearly sixty by the time I got back. If he survived the cancer. I felt more guilt and thought of confessing to Buzz. But what good would it do to confess my deception and the disconnection of his brain to a collection of wires and chips? I would stay silent about it and live with the consequences.

The three weeks of travel went on without incident. I was very glad that we didn’t have another five or more months of deep space. How could astronauts handle this? There is only so much one can do to occupy the time. The scene outside the spacecraft through the view screens had seemed quite amazing at first. Star after star flashed by, occasionally punctuated by a great cloud of dust or gas. But most things were so far away that I could not get a very detailed look at them as we travelled kilometre after kilometre through mostly open space. Fortunately Buzz showed me how to access the spaceship’s electronic library. It was like having thousands of books at hand and I could read them on a screen. The information in the library was heavily weighted toward science and occasionally seemed to be obscure about certain topics. I had tried to learn more about interstellar travel and automated dynamic hyper drive but no matter how I formed my query, I could not find any serious papers on the subject. I suspected that someone was hiding some of the most interesting topics from me.

I learned all I could about the Trappist-1 system to which we were travelling. The star that served as the solar power for the seven planets was a small, cool, dwarf star and the planets orbited in close proximity to the star. Initially, it was thought that Trappist-1g would be too far away from the star to be hospitable to life and scientists had studied Trappist-1d and -1e more closely. They felt that the temperatures on Trappist-1g would be too cold for liquid water to be present. Without liquid water, no one could imagine that life could be present. But then scientists discovered that Trappist-1g was completely enveloped in clouds making it much more like Venus in our own solar system. Venus with its runaway greenhouse effect is too hot for life, but the greenhouse effect on Trappist-1g created a warm atmosphere ranging from twenty-five to thirty-five degrees Celsius, which was highly suitable for liquid water and living earth-like creatures. None of the stars or planets would be visible from the surface of the planet because of the thick layer of clouds, but it was a cosy little place for life to grow and develop cushioned by the comfy blanket of clouds.

Although the literature in my onboard library said there was life on the planet, it gave little detail about the nature of that life. It said nothing about an intelligent species, and I wondered what I would find as we travelled toward a strange new world.


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