Is the advent of scientific progress worth the cost? The first in a series based loosely on Greek myths, this story examines the priorities of those interested in pushing the boundaries of science.
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Professor Daedalus was in an extremely agitated state. It was the first time his proposed method of traveling faster than light would be undergoing a manned test, so some nervousness was understandable. But it was not anxiety over his theories or experiments that put a tremble in his voice and steam in his stride. It was the disagreement he was having with the man walking beside him, ramrod-straight in his Jovian uniform and carefully trimmed mustache, as they headed towards the hangar in the underground facility on Callisto, and the disagreement he was about to have with the pilot of the test vehicle.
“I must repeat my displeasure at this, General Minos,” he said for what felt like the hundredth time.
“He isn’t ready.”
“Nonsense,” Minos replied in the off-handed manner that Daedalus knew from experience meant his mind was already fixed on a notion the way a train is fixed on its rails. “He is an excellent combat and test pilot. He’s earned the Europan Star twice, as well as the Cluster of Io. None of our interceptor designs would have seen production without his abilities as a pilot. You of all people should know this project could not be in better hands.”
It wasn’t anything Daedalus hadn’t heard before, from any number of sources. Despite such positive feedback concerning the pilot, however, he could not dispel his fear. It maintained an icy grip on his heart, and would no sooner release him than Minos would his air of superiority. They reached the hangar, and Minos excused himself to oversee the final preparations of the launch systems. Glad to be rid of the pompous “war hero,” the physicist and inventor headed into the hangar, which had been cleared of the usual compliment of Colonial patrol craft to make room for the singular craft that was the basis of these experiments. Held within a sabot of polished metal, none of the delicate equipment was visible, nor was the control capsule, a cockpit no larger than a standing wardrobe. Standing by it, assisting in the final checklist and adjusting the seals on his pressure suit, was a tall fair-haired man with the keen eyes of a pilot. Daedalus sighed, and approached him.
“Captain,” he addressed the pilot, who turned and shook the professor’s hand with a winning smile.
“Ready to make history?” the pilot asked.
“You’re not the least bit nervous, are you,” Daedalus replied in a deadpan manner.
“Petrified. But when have you known that to stop me?”
“Philip, tell me there’s some way to talk you out of this.”
“You know there isn’t,” Philip told the physicist. “You’ve given the best years of your life for this. Let me give it at least a few hours.”
“It could be the last thing you do. This thing is dangerous.”
“So is any combat vessel we flew against the Terran Navy, but that didn’t stop us. Danger’s always been a part of my job. I could let it define me; I’d rather be defining it.”
Daedalus looked down at his feet and put his hands on his hips.
“Besides,” Philip went on, “who else is going to fly it? You?”
“I could!” Daedalus protested. “I’m not exactly old and frail, you know. And I did design the gravitic attractors, not to mention that the whole idea of harnessing and projecting negative gravitons through the release of casimirium through magnetic acceleration after its discovery in the new californium-palladium-lead reactors-“
“Okay, okay, you know Amelia,” Philip laughed, referring to the testbed vehicle by the name given her by Professor Daedalus’ construction team, after a famous Terran pilot. The first unmanned ships – Orville, Wilbur and Lindbergh – had completed their trips without incident. “But when did you last pull six-plus gees during dogfights while dodging hard light intent on bifurcating you and trying to drop a magnetic plutonium charge on a target the size of your office?”
Daedalus sighed. Philip was right. He hated to admit it, of course, but the combat pilot was far more qualified for the rigors of the test flight, and they’d be in contact the entire time. Negrav technology was already providing near-instant line-of-sight communication between the Jovian colonies, as well as Terra and Luna, when they felt up with their “wayward” cousins orbiting Jupiter.
“You’re right,” Daedalus finally admitted. “I can’t talk you out of this. Just promise me you’ll be careful.”
“You have my word,” Philip said, extending his hand. Professior Daedalus shook it, then walked out of the hangar without another word.
Within the hour, final checks were completed, and Amelia was bolted shut with Philip tucked into the claustrophobic control capsule. The vehicle was carried by industrial flatbed transport to the strategic installation, where it was loaded into Callisto’s main naval cannon. General Minos had approved the use of the Colonies’ largest railgun for the experiment, which reduced the size of the test vehicle considerably. Professor Daedalus sat next to the general in the control center, going over the flight plan one final time. After launch, the Amelia would jettison her sabot, extend the gravitic attraction array from her stern, and commence the FTL test. The projected course was above the orbital plane, a parabolic trajectory that would put the Amelia on the far side of the Jovian listening post on Ceres, currently on the other side of Sol from both Jupiter and Terra. Daedalus just prayed Philip would stick with the planned course and, for once, put aside his tendency to be a show-off. The counters were read to zero and the naval cannon fired.
Long-range cameras showed the Amelia’s smooth, soundless transition as the true vehicle emerged from the discarded piece of the sabot’s shell and, umbrella-like, the shimmering panels of the vital array appeared. The test pilot reported green across the board and was cleared to commence the FTL test. Daedalus looked from the camera displays to the tactical plot, then reached for the communication switch.
“Something wrong?” General Minos asked.
“The Amelia‘s not pitched enough,” the scientist replied. “He needs to adjust Z-plus-41 degrees or…”
“…he’ll cross orbital planes.”
Daedalus narrowed his eyes at the general, who went on.
“I told the captain this when I shared my idea for the test flight last night. I made him aware of the risks. The choice to modify the flight plan is his.”
“Begging your pardon, General Minos,” Daedalus protested, “but such decisions need to be made by myself and the rest of the experiment team.”
“You’ve never seen combat,” Minos pointed out in that casual, off-handed manner of his, “so I know you don’t understand the mentality of a combat pilot. He makes snap decisions at the last moment.”
Before Daedalus could respond, the Amelia disappeared.
This was not wholly unexpected, considering the creation of the Lorentzian envelope coupled with the thrust of Amelia’s on-board engines took the ship faster than light and thus out of the sight of normal sensors. Daedalus’ fingers began to fly over his keyboard, drawing up the projected course of the Amelia given her reduced pitch. She would miss the asteroid belt, and nothing there had a large enough gravitational pull to disrupt the envelope. But this new course would take the test craft close to Terra, where disruption of negrav communication systems would cause their military minds to investigate the goings-on. It was something Daedalus and his team had been striving to avoid, as Terran Command had been a bit twitchy of late.
Sure enough, interceptors launched from Lunar bases about an hour after the Amelia disappeared. Minos got in touch with his adjutant, Colonel Talos, and relayed that Terran Command had indeed caught a disruption on negrav communications starting on Luna and proceeding all along the predawn side of the planet. Given its linear progression, Terra had assumed the worst. But Daedalus was more concerned about where the Amelia would end up.
Finally, after the better part of another hour, long-range telescopes spotted the Amelia near Sol. The speakers crackled to life five minutes later.
“Amelia to Callisto. Pulled out of envelope by solar gravity well. Currently establishing orbit, crossing towards far side within 20 minutes. Would appreciate suggestions, I don’t think the Amelia’s hull is rated for this heat. It’s like an oven in here. Over.”
Professor Daedalus reached for the comm switch again.
“Callisto to Amelia. Philip, this is Professor Daedalus. Maintain your distance from the solar corona, and continue to accelerate as you cross to the far side. With any luck, you can use the gravity of the star for a slingshot to get enough distance to invoke another envelope. Stay cool, Captain, we’ll get you home.”
The rest of the research team stared at him, but the physicist was heedless of their eyes. He was watching the displays, mentally making calculations, as if trying to will the negrav communications to move faster through the vacuum of space. Five minutes after he finished speaking, the Amelia got his message, and another five minutes passed until the speakers sounded again.
“Amelia to Callisto, good to hear your voice. I’ll give your plan a whirl. See you on the other side.”
“I want orbit-breaking scenarios,” Daedalus bellowed to his team. “He’s got 8 hours at most on the far side of Sol at his current speed. So let’s have solutions in 4. Move it!” Everyone scattered from the control room, save for General Minos. Without a word, Daedalus stared at the military commander coldly and then headed to his office to crunch numbers of his own. He focused entirely on the mechanics of his work, on trajectory adjustments and relativistic speeds and material consumption values. It was the only way he could deal with it.
Six hours later Callisto got communication from the Amelia. Daedalus had consumed several stimubars and reviewed the teams’ data. The outlook was grim. They returned to the control room, finding General Minos there as if he’d never left, still looking for all the worlds like nothing was amiss.
“Amelia to Callisto,” came Philip’s voice as they replayed the message. “Sorry to report that my orbit is deteriorating rapidly. Picking up acceleration from solar gravity. I’ll be beyond hope of rescue in 40 minutes from my mark. Hope you calculated a miracle up there. Over, and mark.”
That had been seven minutes ago. Daedalus looked over his notes one more time and then, with Minos looking on, keyed his console.
“Callisto to Amelia. Here’s what we’ve got. You’re going to need to fire the control capsule’s emergency thrusters while the main drive unit is still attached. If the solar heat has melted some of the attraction array, it might have weakened the explosive bolts on the aft of the craft. That should give you enough of a push to break orbit and invoke your envelope home. Over.”
In the next ten minutes, they began to discuss the options for getting the Amelia back out of the Lorentzian envelope, something the test vehicle could not do itself without the array it was about to jettison. Daedalus participated in the conversations until General Minos spoke up.
“Terran Command is aware of what we’re doing. They’ve scrambled several interceptor squadrons. They cannot be allowed to get their hands on the test vehicle. And this projected return course takes it close enough to Terra to be affected by their gravity well.”
“Are you suggesting we abandon him?” Daedalus ventured into the stunned silence.
“We have the data from his outbound flight, downloaded as he made that last transmission. It is more than enough to confirm the technology’s viability.” Colonel Talos walked in, with six armed guards, as Minos continued. “Now that we know it works, work can begin immediately on exploring military applications.”
“But what about the pilot?” Daedalus pressed.
“He’s a hero. That’s how we’ll remember him,” General Minos replied smoothly. Daedalus stood to voice an even more impassioned protest before Philip interrupted him one more time.
“Sorry, Callisto,” the pilot said, his voice strained and weary, “but the whole aft section is fried. I barely missed a prominence on the far side but I guess it tagged me worse than I thought. There’s no way for me to jettison it the command capsule. I fired the emergency thrusters and it burned the rest of the array, anyway, since the aft section was still attached. We know it works, though. I’m the first man to travel faster than light!” Philip laughed a little. “Not too shabby. I’m including a data dump from the on-board computer, though I’m sure Minos already got his hands on it.” The message paused. “I’m sorry, Dad. I’m sorry I listened to the military and not to you. I should have trusted you. Don’t make the same mistake… but I know you won’t.” Another pause. “I love you, and I’m proud to be your son.”
All eyes were on Daedalus. He was still standing, looking at the larger displays in the control center. He felt trapped. His creation had killed his son, and Minos wanted it to kill more. He had trapped himself in his own labyrinth. He did the only thing a parent losing a child can do.
“I love you too, Philip,” he wept, and watched as the indicators for the Amelia, and his son’s life, winked out of existence.