I arrived at the job eight hours early, just in time to watch her say goodbye.
I knew from the start it was a bad idea. Arrive on time, that’s one of my rules. In my line of work, breaking rules can lead to all sorts of problems. Don’t get involved. That’s another of my rules. But I had been involved in this from the start, and despite knowing the ending, I was curious to see how it would play out.
There were dozens of men and women there, and they all wanted to be near her. She made her way through the crowd, shaking hands, patting shoulders, giggling at jokes. It might have been a party. Of course, they didn’t know I was there. But surely some of them were thinking about all the things that could go wrong? Perhaps they had smothered their apprehension under a thick blanket of laughter. The only one who looked nervous was a small boy who sat on a chair by the door, his feet dangling over the edge. She crouched down in front of him and pulled him into a hug.
“I’ll be back before you know it,” she said, stroking his hair. It was the same bushy brown as hers. “You be good to your grandma, okay?”
He just nodded into her shoulder.
"Goodbye," she whispered in his ear. "I love you."
Then someone handed her a helmet, and she walked out of the door to thunderous applause.
I reached the cockpit just before she did. She put her helmet on and two technicians strapped her into her seat. There were seven and a half hours left. She flicked a series of switches on the control panel in front of her. The electronics hummed and little lights blinked on and off.
“Mission control, this is Relativity,” she said. “Do you copy?”
“We hear you loud and clear.” The voice sounded a little muffled to me, but she could probably hear it fine through her earpiece. “Let’s run through the checks, Relativity. What’s the status of your primary fuel valve?”
She leaned to the right to check a readout. “Primary fuel valve is open.”
They continued in that vein for several hours. I sat in the shadows behind her without saying a word. Don’t talk. Not until after. That’s another of my rules. One I didn’t intend to break.
Five hours left.
“Relativity, you are cleared for launch,” said the voice from mission control.
Lights were flashing all over the control panel.
“Ready when you are,” she said. She gripped the edge of the control panel and we both listened to the countdown.
“Three,” said mission control over the roar of the engines. “Two, one… Ignition.”
She was pressed back in her seat by the acceleration. I peered out of the window and watched the ground fall away below us. Trees and buildings shrank until they were the size of toys. The river became a thin glittering ribbon.
“Orbital course correction entered,” she said, flicking two switches. We tilted ever so slightly.
“You’re looking good, Relativity. Safe journey.”
“Why don’t you put the kettle on? I’ll be back before you know it.”
“We’ll have a party when you do. There’s champagne in the fridge.”
“Never liked that stuff.”
“It’s for us. We got you one of those girly cocktails with half a rainforest in it.”
“Does it come with a paper umbrella?”
Humans. I’ll never stop being surprised by them. Here they were, cracking jokes instead of spouting profound nonsense that would look good in the mission transcripts.
The first part of the journey took a surprisingly short time. I had always thought of space as being far away, but after only ten minutes we were in orbit. I had been to space once or twice before but this was the first time I’d taken the long way, so to speak.
“Mission control, this is Relativity,” she said. “I’m in orbit. You’re looking pretty good from up here.”
She wasn’t wrong. The clouds were delicate swirls of white, set against a background of deep blue. Forests shone green, deserts were golden and bronze, and glaciers glittered like jewels. I wanted to draw her attention to the fine edges of the coastlines and tell her anecdotes about the cities below. But it was still too early. She couldn’t know I was there. So I stood in silence and I stared out of the window as Relativity spun through space.
One hour left.
We had orbited Earth while mission control went over velocities and trajectories. Now the noise of the engines had started up again. I turned away from the window. She was still buckled into her seat, hands on the control panel. I noticed for the first time that there was a photograph of her little boy tucked into a corner.
“Mission control, starting ignition now,” she said. The whine of the engines rose to a roar.
“You’re looking good, Relativity.” There was a slight pause, then the voice continued, “We can confirm you’ve left orbit.”
“Right-ho!” Her hands flew over the control panel, and the engines fell silent again. “Well, we’ve got about an hour until I’ve put enough distance between us. Wouldn’t want to scorch you.”
“Initiate the plasma flux system.”
“Roger that, mission control.”
Now this I wanted to see! I edged closer so that I could see the readouts from the plasma flux system. I hadn’t the faintest idea what plasma actually was or why fluxing it was necessary, or whatever the correct physics terms were. But I had been around for a couple of vital moments while the theory was developed and put into practice, and I was curious to see this next step in action. Seven years ago, three scientists had died when their plasma setup exploded. Before that, there had been the grumpy old professor with the tweed jacket who had worked himself to death. Literally. The poor guy had a heart attack in front of his blackboard. His biggest complaint when I came for him was that he had been unable to finish deriving the second degree flux equation. Well, someone must’ve finished it, because several of the symbols on the control panel looked familiar. And there had been so many others before the professor. Men and women who dreamed of flying to the stars and never made it off the ground.
Twenty minutes left now.
“The flux is at point-zero-seven,” she said.
“Someone here wants to have a word, Relativity. Go on, kid.”
“Hi mum,” said a very small voice.
She smiled. “Hey. How’s it going down there? Aren’t you in bed yet?”
“Grandma let me stay up to watch.”
“Have they got me up on the big screen?”
“Yeah. And I’ve got earphones and they’re bigger’n my head. When will you be at the star?”
“I’m not going all the way to the star, remember? They’re too far away, even if I go as fast as light.”
“I’m going to fly for a few minutes only. That’s almost as far as Mars. And then I’ll turn around and come back.” She made a minor adjustment to the flight controls. “Give your grandma a hug, okay? I love you. Mission control, point-zero-six.”
“I love you too,” said the small voice. Then mission control was back. “Plasma is looking good, Relativity. Give it a few more minutes, just to make sure it’s stable.”
She rolled her eyes. “It won’t get more stable than this.”
“Yeah, well, we don’t want you shooting off the wrong way. You might hit the moon.”
“Are you worried I’ll damage it?”
Seven minutes left. An odd, whistling noise filled the cockpit.
“I’ve got a good pressure build-up here,” she said. “This might just work!”
When there was one minute left, I moved quietly to the front of the cockpit. I watched as her hands flew over the controls. Little lights were blinking, all a reassuring green.
“Mission control, can you give me a countdown?” she asked.
“Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight…”
“Did anyone ever tell you you’re a right bastard?” She held her hand above a button. “I’ll do it myself. Light speed here I come! I’m starting the plasma flux burst in three, two, one…”
I stepped forward into her field of view.
Silence fell in the cockpit.
For several seconds we stared at each other. I saw a round face, with dark eyes wide open in shock. Under her helmet, she wore a cloth cap that barely managed to contain her dark curls. I don’t know how she saw me. It’s different for everyone. I could be an owl or an angel or a youth with winged sandals. From the way her eyes flickered up and down I gathered she saw me as tall. Possibly skeletal, clad in black and carrying a scythe.
She was struggling to find her voice, managing only a croak.
“Yes, you’re dead,” I said, not unkindly. “A systems failure of some sort. Death by explosion. It’s a quick way to go.”
“But…” She frowned. “How? I haven’t started the plasma flux burst yet.”
I stared down at the control panel that was very much intact, and her hand that was still hovering just above the button.
There was a slight crackle of static, then mission control spoke. “Relativity, what’s going on?”
“Give me a minute.” She switched her communication system off and turned to me. “Explain.”
This is the trouble with breaking the rules. Sooner or later, you mess up.
“You are supposed to die today,” I said. “Three minutes ago, to be exact.”
“Because of an explosion.” Her face was expressionless.
“So this mission is doomed to fail?”
“No idea. I don’t understand physics.”
“But I die?”
“Then I won’t do it.” But her breathing was already becoming shallow.
“You can’t run from death.”
“I can stop an explosion from happening. I’ll abort the mission. Turn around. Go back. We’ll drag the system back to the lab, and sort out the problem.”
“You die today,” I said. “Explosion or not. Your death is fixed. If you stop the explosion, something else will happen. Your heart will give out or your breathing will stop. Or you’ll crash into a space rock.”
Her eyes strayed to the photograph of her son. He couldn’t be older than six.
“He’ll be okay,” I said. Well, he would be alive at least. I wouldn’t see him until he was an old man, falling asleep in his armchair and never waking up.
“It hurts,” she whispered. One hand was clutching her side. Her lungs, I think.
“I’m sorry,” I said. And I was. “I shouldn’t have arrived until after the explosion. But it will be over soon. You’ve got minutes at most.”
“Will we ever travel at the speed of light?”
“I don’t know. I don’t understand physics. But yours is not the last death in space.”
She closed her eyes and gave a little snort of laughter. “I thought all my questions would be answered when I died. Well. Let’s go out with a bang.”
She opened the communication channel and whispered a last “I love you” to her son, with her fingertips gently caressing his photograph. Then she took a deep, shuddering breath and laid her hand on the button.
“First human to fly at the speed of light! Mission control, this is Relativity. Plasma flux burst in three, two, one …”