Flash Fiction Story 059: Close to the Speed of Light

The stars had been blue for God knows how long, and while I couldn’t see them, I knew the stars behind were red. If the engines could somehow produce just a little bit more, everything outside of that front viewport would turn black.

But I knew that could never happen. Einstein had long since settled that. It didn’t mean things weren’t going to get weird, though.

Humanity’s first starship, the Cinefactus, had been traveling 99.9999999999 percent the speed of light (or 299,792,458 meters per second) since our departure from Earth’s orbit. That increase to a nigh impossible speed had been, by the reckoning of the ship’s clock, 47 minutes ago. In that time, over 62 years had passed back on Earth. So to any infants born around the time our flight began: now is the time to get serious about your retirement options. Seems like only half an hour ago you were getting ready to go to college.

My, how time flies. Literally. At the rate I’m going, other things fly too, but the engineers back home worked something out to deal with our ever-expanding mass. It involves variable geometry and a substance I can only describe as smelling of burnt peanut butter. Don’t take a whiff of it, though. That’s like… page one of our safety manual.

Our journey to the star nearest our solar system—Alpha Centauri, if you’re nasty—would take just about 4.5 years, ship time. For those of you keeping track, 3.1 million years would have passed back home. To all those infants: sorry about dying eons ago. Them’s the breaks. To any apes currently ruling over the Earth: the salt water on that beach is going to corrode the hell out of the Statue of Liberty. Just saying.

Now that I think about it, is that what actually happened to the dinosaurs? Did they leave the Earth for greener (or, as I mentioned above, and the visible spectrum of light dictates, bluer) pastures? Am I going to get to meet a velociraptor astronaut when I get to Alpha Centauri? That’d be cool.

Whether my crew and I’s journey takes what feels like half a decade or a handful of epochs, it’d be a drag to whittle away all of that time in the Cinefactus’ small unobtanium cabin. Never you mind! The engineers have accounted for that as well. We four astronauts, who would succeed where H.G. Wells had only dreamed, are secure in suspension chambers. We are awake, we can see the worlds beyond—or, again, what the visible spectrum of nearly surpassed light would allow us to see—and time moves even slower still. We even have just enough space to move around, receive nutrition, and… well, deal with any other biological functions that might come up over the course of 3 million years. The now 51 minutes of ship time that have elapsed since our departure have actually felt like 2 minutes in our little cubby holes. Thus, the journey would only seem as if it would take a little over two months. 

Sure, it’s a long time to spend trapped in what amounts to a bathroom stall if it were designed by Steve Jobs, but it’s a small price to pay to travel further than any human has ever done before… and to likely outlive the human race and perhaps Betty White.

So, I’m not sure why (or, actually, for whom) I am making a record of my current dilemma, but it seems like as good an idea as any.

Moments after the suspension pod sealed shut, I realized I had made a little… boo boo.

We had trained on the simulator for over a year, had even done dry runs of the 65 days of stasis that would be required. Every meeting we had ever had on the ship reminded us of one thing above all else:

Before you go into the chambers, set the timer to let you out when the ship arrives at Alpha Centauri.

Before you go into the pods, set the timer to let you out when the ship arrives at Alpha Centauri.

Whatever you do, before you go into the pods, set the timer to let you out when the ship arrives at Alpha Centauri.

Can you figure out where I messed up?

The rest of the crew looked from their own pods towards me. Their glares were objectively slow, but shot to me like a bullet. Without a word, they all said in one voice:

Damnit. You had one job.

The timer on the main flight console stayed dim for what you would perceive as about 15 years before I realized my error. Without that timer, we would fly right past Alpha Centauri (and, possibly, right through the star) and careen further through the cosmos.

Forever, in case you were wondering.

We would soar past Sirius, and then Betelgeuse, and then everything else going out into Andromeda and beyond. As long as the ship’s batteries and peanut butter stuff held out, we would travel into infinity.

Well, I guess what I should be saying is that all of those things will happen. There’s no way out of the pod. There’s no way off the ship. And the ship will not stop.

By the time I finish this report, I will have already lived longer than any human being had ever lived.

It appears I’ll have plenty of time to stew over my mistake.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly