Captain Grace Adams checked her tablet to be sure it was ready to record. She hesitated a beat, then touched the screen.
“Hello, My Love. I bet you never thought you’d see me again. I know I didn’t want to ever talk to you again,” she gulped a breath, “after you betrayed me.” Her next breath was deeper. “We had a deal. ‘Co-Captains’ you called it. Equal partners taking humanity to the stars.”
Grace sat back in her chair, but her voice was anything but relaxed. “You told me the Agency kicked me off the crew, but I know now that the Captain has the last word on personnel. When I watched you take that screamer into orbit, I was heartbroken. Disappointed that I wouldn’t have the chance to start a new world and devastated that the love of my life was gone forever.
“Your starship with its sub-light L-4 drive is on a one-way trip.” A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “You have,” she glanced at the screen to her left, “six years, three months, and twenty-two days of dilated time until you reach your destination. Well, I have good news and bad news for you…”
Captain Rodney Adams made a face as he sipped the post-hibernation restorative. He sat in his quarters and stared at the ship’s chronometer stone-faced until the door buzzed.
The door slid open and two of Adams’s crew entered. First Officer Janice Ramey stepped stiffly to the right of door and a junior specialist whose name Adams couldn’t recall stepped to the left. He was visibly shaking.
“Mr. Ramey, you want to tell me why you woke me six months early?”
Adams’s and Ramey’s watch crews were on alternating two-year hibernation cycles. Before First Officer Ramey could answer, though, Captain Adams continued, his voice rising in annoyance. “I’ve checked the ship’s status and all systems are nominal. There are no alerts pending, so what the hell is so urgent that it warrants my attention?”
Janice stood, impervious to Adams’s rant. “Captain, Communications Specialist Alvarez here received a transmission that you must see.”
Adams turned his attention to the young Specialist. “We receive transmissions from Earth every day, don’t we?” Alvarez nodded. “Then what could they possibly have to tell us from two light years away?”
Alvarez glanced at First Officer Ramey who nodded. “Ah, Captain, this message wasn’t received from Earth.” Adams sat stunned for a second, mouth hanging open, then he snapped it shut and turned to Ramey.
“Is this a First Contact?” Adams asked, excitement obvious in his voice.
“Oh, God, no.” Alvarez stammered.
Adams’s face instantly changed from excitement to confused annoyance. “What are you talking about?”
Janice spoke up before Alvarez. “Captain, the message came from one degree to starboard of our forward direction perpendicular to that direction. The frequency was shifted to account for our current velocity relative to Earth, including correcting for our current acceleration, such that we received it on our standard Earth communication frequency.”
“That would mean they know a hell of a lot about us. How can that be?”
“If you watch the video, you’ll understand, Captain.”
“Wait. There’s a video message? In English?”
Janice didn’t respond verbally. She just touched the screen of the tablet she carried and handed it to Adams, who looked down as the video started. His wife looked older, nearly twenty years older if his math was correct, but instantly recognizable to him. His sight dimmed, a black haze closing his vision down to a tunnel and a buzzing in his ears covered Grace’s voice.
When he came back to his senses, Grace was still speaking. “…I have good news and bad news for you. You get the bad news first.” A smirk appeared and disappeared in quick succession. “The planet you’re heading for, Alpha Centauri A-1, which we all thought would be a new Eden for humanity,” she paused, all enjoyment gone from her face, “is a bust.” She held up a hand stopping what she knew would be Adams’s reaction. “Listen, I know it’s in the habitable zone and its mass and gravity all look ideal. But, Rod, we’ve been there. We’ve seen the planet. It won’t sustain life.” Grace’s face softened. “A lot has happened since you left. All of the data are attached to this message.”
Captain Adams punched the tablet’s screen, pausing the video. “Have you looked at the data?”
Janice nodded, then turned to Alvarez. “Thank-you Mr. Alvarez. Dismissed.” The Specialist nodded and walked quickly through the door as soon as it opened. When it slid closed, Janice slumped into a guest chair. “Yes, we’ve analyzed the data Grace sent. It all checks out. Apparently, the third star in the system, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, went wildly unstable and threw out enough charged particles to strip the atmosphere from A-1. It’s a dead world.”
Adams reacted as he always had to bad news—denial and attack. “How do we know she didn’t fake the data? It would be just like her. You heard how she has it in for me for leaving her behind. Besides, she couldn’t possibly have beaten me to Alpha Centauri.”
Janice just shook her head. “Captain, that’s a little extreme, don’t you think? Besides, as she said, a lot has happened since we left. Apparently, your wife—you are still married—has spent her time productively since we left. She developed something called a BEC-QT Hyperdrive.” Janice couldn’t help smiling a little. “She called it a ‘Cutie’. Anyway, this Cutie drive cruises at about 100c. The message includes full specs and background scientific data on the drive.”
The both sat in silence for close to a minute. Then Adams spoke up, “I guess that’s the bad news. What’s the good news?” He didn’t sound very hopeful.
Janice shrugged. “Part of the good news is that we know the situation less than half-way there.”
“Before turn-around you mean.”
“Right. The rest of the ‘good’ news is that the other Captain Adams and her crew have also surveyed Luyten b and it’s even better than we thought A-1 would be.”
“Luyten is over twelve light years from Earth.”
“And about twelve light years and a right-angle turn from Alpha Centauri.”
“Sounds like you’ve done some astrometrics.”
Janice shrugged again. “If we keep accelerating, adjusting our course a bit, we can slingshot around Alpha and flip over in six years, backing into the Luyten system eight years after that.”
Adams sat silently, letting the new reality sink in. When he spoke again, there was conviction in his voice. “Fourteen more years instead of six. If we cut the watch crews in half and go on a six year hibernation cycle, will our stores hold out?”
Janice nodded, “Just barely.” Her lips turned up into a smile and she picked up the tablet. Her finger slide the progress bar to the right, then she set it on the table and spun it around. “She saved our asses, you know.” Without another word, she rose and left the room.
Captain Adams looked down at the other Captain Adams frozen on the screen. “Yeah, I really screwed you, Love,” and he touched Resume.
“I’m sure by now you’ve had Janice confirm what I’ve said, so there really isn’t anything else to say,” Grace’s eyes bore into him from across time and space, “except this. Understand that I didn’t do this for you. Your crew is the hope and future of our species. I—we, my crew did this for your crew. If you were alone on that ship, I’d let you rot on Alpha Centauri A-1. When my crew and I have had our fill of exploring the galaxy, maybe we’ll pay you a visit.” She leaned in, only inches from the camera. “Then we’ll have a chat.”
Adams sat staring at the black screen.
May 30, 2020