Mark Duplock

Highway to the Stars

Proxima Centauri lined up on the ship’s display as the small craft manoeuvred into position. Information flashed across the main control screen in front of Captain David Hargreaves.

Target: Proxima Centauri
Distance: 4.2 Light Years
ETA: 20 minutes

Twenty minutes to travel over four light years—that was going to take some getting used to. In the history of humankind, nobody had ever travelled faster than ten percent of the speed of light. It would take a person over forty years to reach the star at such a slow pace.

“We’re seeing all systems green down here, Captain.” The smooth voice over the radio was a reassuring distraction as they passed instructions to him from ground control.

Earth hung behind the small spaceship, out of Hargreaves’ view, and he regretted not being able to look down on the planet. Earth from orbit was always a spectacular sight. The radio crackled into life again and a woman with a strong Australian accent spoke. Hargreaves smiled behind the tinted visor of his helmet—he was glad to hear Victoria’s voice.

“Captain,” Victoria said. “We’re ready on our side for your hyperspace jump. How do things look from up there?”

Hargreaves paged through his displays, checking sensors, guidance, pressure and anything else his computers could show him. He knew that control had access to all the same data. The checks were more of a test of his state of mind—making sure he would not go nuts during the flight.

“All good here,” he said. “Ready to spin up the generator.”

The hyperspace generator had been an accidental discovery by CERN fifty years earlier. Scientists had found that they could force matter out of normal space and into hyperspace by using the device. Once an object was in hyperspace, you chose a destination, and the object would appear there. Unmanned tests had traveled between Earth and the Moon, but they discovered that such short distances created unstable hyperspace tunnels. They had met the decision to launch a manned mission to the nearby star of Proxima Centauri with eagerness. Humanity was on the verge of inheriting the galaxy.

“Okay, Captain,” Victoria said. “Let’s run through the plan for the day. In four minutes, the hyperspace generator will spin up. It will reach capacity thirty seconds later. After that, you have ten seconds to launch to hyperspace or the generator will power-down. Copy?”

“All copied,” Hargreaves replied.

“Good. Once you’re in a stable hyperspace tunnel, enable the guidance computer. It has your destination locked and you should arrive in roughly twenty minutes of relative travel time. When you arrive, the generator will enter a cool-down period of three hours. Once the cool down is complete, repeat the process to return to Earth. Questions?”

“Time dilation?” Hargreaves asked.

He had been in the room when they had discussed time dilation. The scientists were fairly certain that there would be none, but he wasn’t sure how he felt when a scientist said they were ‘fairly certain’ about something. If he was going to experience time dilation on his trip, then many years could pass on Earth while he only experienced a few hours.

The consensus of the scientists was that there was simply no clock in hyperspace that would track time. Not that time passed quickly or slowly for an object in hyperspace, but that there was no such thing as time.

“David,” Victoria said over the radio. “You know we’ve done as much as we can to assess the impact of time dilation. I have every confidence in the science team when they say that you’ll be back here in just over three and a half hours. One minute until the generator spins up.”

Hargreaves wasn’t the nervous type, but something cold gripped his stomach at the last words. In just over a minute, he would be the first person to enter hyperspace. Lights on the consoles flickered to life and at the same moment, a low hum rumbled throughout the small ship.

“Generator is running,” the voice from Control confirmed.

Hargreaves watched as the gauges climbed up towards the 100% mark—the moment where he would launch humanity into a new era. Slowly, they climbed. Victoria had said it would take thirty seconds, but it felt like a lifetime.

He wondered if he would see stars in hyperspace. The scientists had been uncertain about that, too. He checked his panels for any warning lights that would force him to abort and saw none. The generator’s status light blinked green.

“The generator is ready,” said Victoria. “Safe journey, David.”

They had planned some words for him to say when he flicked the switch, but as he placed his finger on the toggle, he realised he had forgotten what they were.

“That’s one more step for humanity.” He cringed as the words left his mouth—he never had been much of a public speaker. He flicked the switch—the ship shuddered, and the stars disappeared. The generator continued to rumble, and the main panel remained a reassuring wash of green lights.

Hargreaves leaned forward in his seat and looked out into the hyperspace tunnel. Colours drifted past the view port—a mess of whirling oil dropped in water. Shapes emerged in the hectic assortment of colour, pressing into the sea of blue, green, and red. They appeared fleetingly, pushing the colourful boundary of the hyperspace tunnel inwards, before vanishing.

He pulled himself away from the view and let out a slow breath. This was it—faster than light travel was now a reality. He toggled the radio, unsure if control would still hear him. The computer would record his voice, regardless.

“Control, I appear to be in a stable hyperspace tunnel,” he said. “I am going to hand over to the guidance computer and begin heading to Proxima Centauri.”

The panel lights continued to display a friendly, green glow. His hand hovered over the primary display before pressing down on the small button that gave control of the ship to the computer. There was a slight jolt as the ship accelerated, pressing him gently into his seat as the ship moved towards the curtain of colour that surrounded it.

The front of the ship pierced the wall and pushed into the colourful boundary. Hargreaves held his breath as the line of swirling patterns crawled towards the view port. A red light began flashing on the panel in front of him and he scanned the display, looking for the cause. It didn’t take him long, and his eyes went wide as he read the words on the screen:

Object detected: Avoiding

The wall of colour was passing over the view port, and Hargreaves stared out—searching for the object that the ship had found. The first thing he saw was another wall of colour. This one seemed far away and stretched in every direction. Then the ship tilted forwards and he saw the colours formed the wall of an impossibly massive tunnel.

A panicked cry burst from him as his eyes darted over the scene in the view port. The rainbow colours of the tunnel wall gave way to the glow of light that streamed from the highway in front of him. Strange signs hung over the lanes of assorted, stationary spaceships and Hargreaves recognised the traffic jam for what it was.

One of the nearby signs lit up with huge lines of text. The words were English, and they scrolled slowly:

Please welcome Sol System
to the Hyper Space Network
We apologise for the delay

Hargreaves sat dumbfounded. Slowly, he looked down at the guidance computer and cried as he read:

Target: Proxima Centauri
Distance: 3.6 Light Years
ETA: 8 years