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The Path To Centauri

science fiction by Sean Monaghan

Toby and I walked around the ninety-foot yacht in the secondhand lot.  Years ago, Mary-Lou had taken sheiks and princes to the asteroids.  The hull was sound but the interior was shot.  We got her for under half Toby’s budget.

We stripped the interior and brought the existing drive up to spec.  Keeping the stern cabin, bridge and forward lounge, we filled the remaining cavity with the jump drive’s power cells.  Toby’s drive dragged the ship rather than pushing like conventional rockets.

We had money.  Toby had become an overnight billionaire by selling his other good idea – downloadable, one-season shoes – to the guys who got out of Google just in time.

“This is going to work, right?” I asked as we installed the glassy pieces of the drive into the gutted lounge.

“Of course it will.  Next stop, Proxima Cetauri.”

We’ve had fast, safe void travel for decades, but no one has really been beyond Quaoar and the Oort.  Toby’s jumpdrive would change that.

Our plan, and I know this seems juvenile, was to drop a beacon transmitting old television shows at Earth just to mess with people.  “It’ll take years to get the drive compact enough for commercial production,” Toby told me.  “Might as well have some fun with the S.E.T.I. crowd in the meantime.”

Even so, I was taking a Leica with a good lens.

We launched above the ecliptic and let the computer point the nose at the star.  Toby also wanted to prove that his interstellar navigation system worked.

“Did we bring sandwiches?” he asked as the holograph pool showed two lines – the path to Centauri and our attitude – gradually merging.

“We’ve got muffins,” I said.  “And fruit.”

The computer would engage the drive the moment the lines met.  No flicking switches or steering yolks.  We biologicals were too inefficient and sloppy.  A fraction of a degree out and we’d arrive billions of miles from our destination.  We just sat in the bridge amidships enjoying the view.

“Okay.  I’ll be hungry when we get there.”

Just talking about it made me hungry.  I’d been too nervous to eat breakfast and my stomach was growling.

“Almost set,” Toby said, opening a second pool to show the paths on a logarithmic scale.  The lines joined and the ship clicked and clanked as the drive engaged.

Mary-Lou didn’t move an inch.

“What happened?” I said.  I looked through the bridge canopy.  All the stars in place, just as they’d been.  To the starboard and below, the distant crescent of Earth.  “Didn’t it work?”

“Look.”  Toby pointed ahead.

I couldn’t see anything different.  “What?”

“Mary-Lou’s bow.”

The yacht’s nose was stretching away from us as if it was made of Rubberastic.

“What’s going on?” I said.

Toby activated all the emergency overrides.  The bow kept stretching away.  The line of change moved back along the hull.

The display pool showed a row of red beads.  The computer believed it had shut the drive down.

“Let’s get down there,” Toby said.  “Turn it off manually.”

We raced to the companionway and found the stretch line.  The corridor was elongated, as if I was peering through reversed binoculars.

“Look,” Toby said, pointing at the floor.  Right by our feet the old carpet was normal, cut loops, gray with the subtle red fleck.  A yard away the carpet was stretched, sliding off.  The walls and ceiling stretched too.  The line was creeping towards us.

“This is one of those ‘fabric of space-time’ things, isn’t it?” I said.

“Mmm.”  Toby put his boot by the line.

“Is that a good idea?”

“Gotta find out.”

The stretching reached his toe.  The leatherite began to stretch with the carpet.

“Uh-oh,” I said.

The door to the drive room was vanishing into the distance.

“This isn’t how it’s supposed to work, is it?”

The tip of Toby’s boot was already fifteen inches from the heel.  Twenty.  And the line continued to move along the laces.

“Tickles,” he said.

“Step back.”

Toby lifted his foot and the movement was odd, not like a floppy clown’s foot, but something drifty and twisted.  He put the foot down and reached out a hand.  His fingers began extending through the air.

“Toby!” I grabbed him.

“No,” he said.  He looked around at me, fingers and boot still stretching into the void.  “I have to get to the drive to shut it off.”

“You can’t … you’ll be all … stretched out.”

“It’s relative.  Get to the stern.  I don’t know how long this will take.”  He stepped forward, his face and legs and body and arms all stretching out into the corridor.  He moved like a spidery marionette, then was flung down the dark corridor.

The stretching was accelerating and I jumped back from the line.  Toby was gone.

I sped to the bridge, talked with the computer quickly, but it was still convinced that the drive was shut off.  The stretch line began pulling at the bridge windows and I retreated into the hull.  The corridor was very dark, the line moving faster.

I got into the rear cabin and found the muffins.  As I ate, the door was sucked away and I realised that Toby had failed.  The floor began to slip into darkness.  Then I was swallowed, my shoes and arms going as Toby’s had.  I was ripped through a maelstrom, my body torn asunder.  My synapses were pummelled as the malfunction shredded me down to molecules and atoms, perhaps even to fundamental particles.  I felt as if I had become a firework inside a supercollider.

With a snap things gathered together, my body piling back into itself, and light returned.  I was lying on the cabin floor and Toby was standing over me.

“We’re at Proxima Centauri,” he said.

“There is no way,” I wheezed, “that you can sell that as a transportation system.”

Toby smiled.  “Yeah.  But we can market it as a theme park ride.”

Copyright 2010 by Sean Monaghan

Sean Monaghan lives in New Zealand.  He likes stretched out walks on long beaches as the evening sun hits the waves.  Sean’s stories have appeared in Kings of the Realm, 365Tomorrows,  Static Movement and Flashes in the Dark, among others. More information at his website  www.venusvulture.com

[Return to the October 2010 stories]

5 Responses

  1. […] The Path To Centauri […]

  2. There’s some great sci-fi/futuristic humor in this piece that sold it for me.

  3. Thanks Milo – appreciate that.

  4. Ha! Loved ths, Saen. I thnk I’ll pss on the sci fi ride, thnk yuo very much.

  5. Thanks Jodi. Really, it sounds worse that it is – I think you’d enjoy it.

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