The first manned mission to interstellar space
HERMES LAUNCH OPENS NEW ERA OF INTERSTELLAR TRAVEL! The Luna City news service headline was both jubilant and triumphant, an epic new mission was just the thing to rouse a jaded public. A decade of successful missions from the lunar space port made it seem almost routine to send a scientific probe to Pluto or colonists to Mars. This new mission would remind people of the importance of the lunar colony.
The video stream of the launch, however, showed little of the drama that accompanied blasting off from Earth. There were no billowing clouds of smoke and fire. The pad at Armstrong base had long been scoured clear of the fine dust that covered much of the lunar surface. Without atmosphere, no wind would ever blow it back again.
Hermes was smaller than the typical space craft, carrying a crew of three and appearing almost delicate atop the much larger solid-fuel booster and ion drive second stage. Lifting a payload from the moon’s surface requires far less thrust than from earth’s gravity well, so the engine didn’t need to provide a massive initial burst. It could burn its fuel at a slower rate for a longer period of time to achieve the desired velocity. The bright plume from the booster engine looked like an inverted candle flame in the inky vacuum surrounding the moon.
"Prepare for stage 1 separation."
Mission Commander Steve Mason made an effort to speak calmly as the Hermes spacecraft completed the first leg of its interstellar mission. They'd taken an initial course 'down' and away from the sun to get lined up on their planned route to the Centauri system. Centauri is located in the southern sky, as seen from earth, at an angle of approximately 60 degrees from the ecliptic of the Solar system. It was crucial that the ship be positioned exactly between Sol and Centauri when they caught the boost beam from Solar Relay 3.
An experienced astronaut, Steve was used to high G maneuvers. Still, he welcomed a respite from the heavy thrust of the booster rocket that had launched them from the moon. The needle-shaped ship shuddered as the explosive bolts fired. The feeling was familiar to Hermes’ crew, but what came next would be new for all of them.
"Booster away, Commander."
Nervous excitement and tension came through clearly as Flight Engineer Logan Reynolds anticipated Steve's next order.
"Ready for ion drive ignition."
The solid-fuel first stage had provided a 3 G sprint for 5 hours, taking them 5 million kilometers from their starting point. The ion-drive second stage would continue to accelerate Hermes at a steady 0.3 G for another 84 hours as it gradually turned the ship onto a vector toward the Alpha Centauri system.
"Let's not be in too much of a rush, Logan. Are we still on course?"
"Affirmative, Steve, the booster came off clean," Logan replied.
"Let’s do one more system check, Bryce, to humor an old man."
Mission Specialist Bryce Hyland was fully aware of every detail of the ship’s systems, but he paused for several seconds to give Steve the impression of an old-fashioned visual scan.
Bryce was surprisingly relaxed. He probably should have been tense. Hermes was his baby, after all. Named for the fleet-footed messenger of the gods, it would be the first ship to carry humans out of the solar system. Bryce had been the driving force in getting the project funded and had also served as lead designer. Tight nerves might have been expected, but the astrophysicist felt more happy than nervous at the prospect of living out his dream.
"Everything looks good, Steve. We're ready to go."
“Okay, Logan, fire it up.”
The gentle push of the ion drive was almost comforting as it came on line. The compact fusion reactor that supplied the ship’s electrical systems also provided power to the second stage engine. Its intense magnetic fields ripped elemental hydrogen into an ionic plasma and ejected the particles at light speed to provide thrust. And the thrust vector would change gradually over the next three days to bring them onto their desired course for Alpha Centauri.
Hermes Log - Day 3 – Steve Mason
We found the guide beam today. Logan expects to lock on to our heading tomorrow. The ion drive is performing flawlessly. We're already the fastest humans ever at 441 km/sec. Almost a million mph! We'll be more than 150 million kilometers from earth when we pick up the main beam.
The Solar 3 satellite used a wide-spread low intensity guide beam to aid Hermes in finding its desired course. Modulations in its wave form allowed Logan to gradually align the ship with the exact center of the beam.
“Okay, Steve, we’re locked on to the guide beam, directly in line between Solar 3 and Centauri," Logan announced.
“Prepare for stage 2 separation.”
The second set of explosive bolts fired, and Hermes was finally on its own, racing outward from Sol, but still barely off the starting line.
"Deploy light sail."
Logan activated the sail system and a hatch in the aft hull swung open. The sail drum slowly extended two meters behind Hermes. A super-reflective mylar sheet unfurled as the drum rotated and allowed flexible composite ribs to expand. The final result resembled an open umbrella, but with a shallower curve and a diameter of almost 40 meters.
"Sail deployed," Logan reported.
"I was made for this, Steve. Let's light it up!"
"Armstrong, we are go for beam," Commander Mason radioed dramatically to mission control. “I repeat, go for beam.”
There was no immediate response as the radio lag, already four minutes each way, rendered the moment anticlimactic.
"Well guys, take a break, I guess. Smoke 'em if ya got 'em," Steve joked.
The next eight minutes passed in tense silence.
"Copy that, Hermes. Beam request received and acknowledged. Stand by for thrust in approximately ten minutes."
The reply from Armstrong base reached the Solar Relay 3 boost satellite two minutes after being received by the Hermes’ crew. Hundreds of mirrored panels swung into final alignment to gather and concentrate the Sun’s power into a focused beam almost as wide as Hermes’ light sail. The huge secondary mirror, locked on a vector toward the Centauri system, sent those megawatts of light energy toward the waiting craft. It took another six minutes for the intense beam to reach its target. The effect had been demonstrated many times over, but the three men aboard Hermes were still elated when their acceleration jumped to more than 2G.
"Jack be nimble, Jack be quick," Bryce declaimed. "Mind your step or burn your dick."
"There's no need for that kind of talk," Logan objected. He didn't always care for Bryce's dark humor. Keeping Hermes centered on the beam was his responsibility and he didn't want to think about the consequences of failure.
"I think Bryce is merely waxing poetic," Steve said. "But he does have a point."
"We're Jack, but instead of jumping over the candlestick, we're dancing atop the flame," Bryce explained. "Let's hope the sail doesn't rupture or we'll be toast, literally.
The economic benefit of using light to power a space probe was obvious when it was first proposed in the 1980s. Using energy from the sun could make the outward leg of a space flight almost free, with precious fuel conserved for the return trip. And even a small amount of thrust, applied continuously for days or weeks, could result in impressively high velocities.
The Solar Relay 1 boost satellite had been a proof of concept that used a fixed array of mirrors similar to the James Webb telescope but facing toward the sun instead of the stars. An array of eighteen primary mirrors reflected raw sunlight to a central secondary mirror. The secondary mirror sent an intense beam of collimated light back through a hole in the center of the primary array. The initial solar boost beam provided enough thrust to send small probes to the outer solar system in months instead of years.
Solar Relay 2, with a much larger mirror array, was placed in an orbit near Venus where the sun’s rays are much more intense. It reduced mission times with larger ships from months to weeks and made the Martian colonization program practical. Solar Relay 3, orbiting closer to the sun than the planet Mercury, had been the crucial next step toward project Hermes. Bryce had convinced congress to fund the huge mirror array and had worked tirelessly to prepare Hermes ever since. And now they were riding that beam out of the solar system.
The vast distances involved complicated their navigational task. Hermes’ starting point for interstellar space was already too distant for the Solar 3 satellite to coordinate effectively with the ship's guidance system. The beam would simply stab out into space like a searchlight, pointing directly toward Alpha Centauri. It would remain on, as stable and unwavering as technology would permit, for the next eighteen weeks. Logan had to balance the ship on the end of the beam for as long as possible while Hermes accelerated toward its target. Simulations had shown that 124 days and .84 C was the best he could expect to achieve. The beam was scheduled for automatic shutoff at 130 days as it would take weeks or even months to notify Earth by radio if they fell off the beam early.
The mission plan was to 'ride the beam' for at least 118 days to accelerate toward Alpha Centauri. A hoped-for velocity of 0.8 light speed would get them to their destination approximately 5 years later. The round trip would take almost eleven years, earth time, but the relativistic effect of time dilation would reduce the trip to only seven years as experienced by Hermes and its crew.
Hermes Log - Day 11 – Logan Reynolds
We're well away from Sol and we don’t expect any asteroids out here. It’s already pretty empty, not even much dust. Let’s hope it stays empty all the way to Centauri. Hermes is accelerating smoothly, and all systems are nominal. There’s no sign of sail degradation. Seems like a good omen.
"Wave goodbye to Earth, guys," Bryce said.
"What do you mean by that? We left Earth two weeks ago," Logan replied.
"Care to explain, Bryce?"
"Well, Steve, it's only a rough estimate, but I think we've already gone far enough that our only way home is to complete the mission. We're twice as far out as Pluto and our speed is approaching .1 C. Hermes is too far away and going too fast for a rescue mission. We don't even have enough fuel to slow down and let them catch up. We make our maneuver as planned or . . ."
"Gee thanks, that's a cheery thought," Logan said. “How long do we have to stay on the beam, again?”
“Depends on life support,” Bryce replied. “We need a velocity of .5 C to make it to Centauri before we starve, and .7 to make it all the way home. So, we only have another 60 days of suspense.”
No one said anything for a few moments. Nothing more needed to be said. All three men knew what they'd volunteered for, but the reality of their isolation was sobering.
It simply wasn't feasible to carry enough fuel for a conventional mission over interstellar distances. So, Hermes wouldn't slow down when it reached its target. The audacious plan was to make one pass through the triple-star Centauri system and reverse course without decelerating. They'd execute one gravity slingshot maneuver at Proxima Centauri, and then another at the binary star Centauri AB. The resulting 180-degree course flip would point them back toward the solar system where the Solar 3 boost beam could decelerate the ship as it approached earth again. Their precious fuel would be reserved for avoiding any inconvenient objects that they might encounter en route.
Hermes Log - Day 120 – Steve Mason
We lost the beam today. The sail is furled and stowed. Our velocity is .81 C. If all goes well, we’ll be back a couple of weeks early. Nothing to do now but coast for three years and hope we don't hit anything solid.
“Well done, Logan, that’s one box checked. Now we just have to watch for rocks and reefs,” Steve joked, relieved at getting over their first hurdle. “How’s our course, Bryce?”
“It’s still early, Steve, but we’re looking good so far. It’ll be a few months before I can determine the first course correction.”
Bryce was the driving force behind project Hermes. As mission specialist, he had primary responsibility for monitoring the external sensors. His stemplant connection fed the camera and radio antenna data directly into his nervous system. Learning to cope with the torrent of information was perhaps the most challenging aspect of the mission.
The highest priority on their outbound leg was to avoid colliding with interstellar debris. Survival at .81 C depended on staying alert. The sensors were barely adequate and there was limited fuel for maneuvering, so early detection was critical. At their current velocity, even a pebble could be disastrous. No one knew what they might encounter in the near-empty void between star systems. One of their mission objectives was to find out.
“What do you think we’ll find at Proxima?”
It was Logan’s favorite topic. He returned to it every few weeks like a child streaming a favorite video over and over. Steve knew Bryce was tired of repeating himself, so he stepped in and recapped the mission plan once more.
“The Centauri system is made up of three stars. Centauri A and B are a binary pair so close together that they could fit within our solar system, and they’re similar to Sol in size and color. Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf located .2 lightyears from Centauri AB. We know that Proxima has an earth-size planet, Proxima B, in the habitable zone. And it has a massive gas giant farther out. There could be more planets, but they’d have to be smaller, dwarf planets maybe. We’ll make a sweeping arc around Proxima, approaching from beneath the ecliptic to avoid dust in the planetary plane and passing just inside the orbit of Proxima B. We’ll scan the planet to confirm whether it can support life. With luck, we may be able to detect actual signs of life as we go by.”
“What if there’s intelligent life?”
“If they have telescopes, then we’ll scare the shit out of ‘em,” Bryce chimed in. “Of course, their government will probably suppress the sighting to avoid a general panic.”
“Aw, c’mon, don’t start with that conspiracy stuff,” Logan replied. “There’s never been a confirmed sighting of an alien spaceship. Even that Oumuamua object that flew through the solar system was probably just a rock.”
“Maybe not,” Bryce laughed. “But there’ve been a lot of UFOs over the years that still haven’t been explained. And if our mission is successful, we might be an Oumuamua object ourselves. It’s merely a matter of perspective. Who knows, maybe the Centaurans have been sending probes to Earth all these years.”
Hermes Log – Day 188 – Bryce Hyland
One ship, crew ship,
red shift, blue shift.
Dr. Seuss never imagined anything like this. The universe looks very different when you zip along at .8 C. Full integration with the ship provides a strange new perspective. Our past is red, and the future is blue. Sol is a bright cherry behind us and Centauri is a cobalt beacon calling us on.
Project Hermes was originally conceived as an unmanned mission and even that was deemed high risk. Skeptics said it was like tossing a dart from a moving car and hoping to hit a bullseye mounted on a speeding train four lightyears away. It was also pointed out that a ship traveling near the speed of light would almost certainly be destroyed in a collision with cosmic debris before reaching its destination.
It was only the use of titanium infused ceramic composite and a tiny cross section that provided hope for Hermes to endure the scouring of interstellar dust. So, the ship’s design resembled a javelin that might have been thrown by an Olympic giant. The ship was more than 100 meters long from the needle tip to its blunt tail and less than 2.5 meters in diameter at its widest point. U-boat sailors had endured confinement in craft of similar dimensions, but for weeks at a time, not years.
Even if the ship did survive, the communications lag across four lightyears made control from earth impossible. But too many unknowns meant that an autopilot would also be inadequate. Everyone agreed that a human crew was needed to ensure mission success.
The design was also constrained by the limitations of the boost beam. A light sail couldn’t accelerate a large ship at high enough G for interstellar travel. It would require years to reach the necessary velocity. And a small ship couldn’t carry enough supplies to sustain its crew. The problem was how to fit a human crew into a tiny ship and keep them alive and sane for seven years.
Hermes Log - Day 649 – Steve Mason
I’m declaring today as the half-way point to Proxima. All ship systems are operating as designed. Interstellar space turns out to be very empty indeed, killing time is our biggest challenge.
“What do you miss most, Steve?”
“Playing with my nephew, giving him a ride on my shoulders. He’d pretend to be flying whatever plane I was testing at the time. He was always glad to see me no matter what. I needed that kind of break sometimes.”
It was a sort of game that they played to relieve the stress of isolation. Each man took his turn to indulge in a bit of self-pity. Putting it out in the open helped to keep the feelings under control. Part of the game was coming up with something new and original each time.
“I miss playing flag football with Becky Sullivan. Sometimes she’d accidentally tackle me and call time out,” Logan grinned. “And those time outs could be pretty spectacular.”
“What about you, Bryce?”
“I miss hanging ten at Hanalei Bay, catching a big wave at the end of the day and riding it all the way in. Followed by beers and clams around a bonfire. I’d lie back and look at the stars while somebody played the guitar.”
“It always comes back to the stars, doesn’t it?” Steve observed.
“Yes, it does,” Bryce replied thoughtfully.
Logan would have nodded if he could.
Hermes was 22 months ship-time into its journey to Alpha Centauri. Fears of hitting an asteroid in interstellar space had proven to be exaggerated. The biggest problem that the crew faced was boredom. Few people had ever experienced such a prolonged confinement. Their collection of eBooks, puzzles, and videos all blurred together. They had only their interaction with each other to stave off insanity.
Bryce felt the most stress. There wasn't enough data available about Alpha Centauri to fully entrust their maneuvers to autopilot. Bryce had the responsibility to track their trajectory and calculate the necessary course corrections. The others were depending on him for their survival and eventual return to Earth.
They'd have less than fifteen minutes at each of the Centauri star systems as Hermes sped through their ecliptic planes at near light speed. Steve and Bryce would frantically take scientific data about each star and any planets they found. Logan would concentrate on flying the slingshot maneuver. And if they survived the near-star transits, Bryce still had to guide them back to Sol.
Hermes Log – Day 1235 – Bryce Hyland
Canine glare bites the tongue,
metallic blue-white scent.
Roaring fusion summons me
through deafened eyes.
Blazing sprites arise
from elemental boil.
Radiant beacon in an icy void.
"Uh, commander?" Logan was calling on a private com channel. With only a three-man crew, that meant trouble. "Did you see that last log entry? I think Bryce is losing it."
"I saw it. But writing poetry isn't necessarily crazy, Logan."
"Maybe not," Logan said doubtfully, "but this is some weird shit, and he shouldn't put it in the official log."
"You have a very literal mind, Logan. It makes you a good engineer, but it doesn't help when it comes to understanding poetry. Have you said anything to Bryce?"
"No, I thought it might be better coming from you."
As a former fullback at the naval academy, Logan was used to hitting problems head-on. He'd been third in his class at flight school and had excelled during his training at NASA. He was an expert in every aspect of the ship's operation, but touchy-feely stuff like poetry made him uncomfortable.
"All right, I'll have a talk with Bryce. He might be experiencing some sort of synesthesia due to a system malfunction."
"That's a scrambling of signals in the brain. Like tasting colors or seeing sounds. Could be a glitch in his stemplant interface. More likely, it's his idea of a joke, something to break the monotony."
"If it's a joke, it's not very funny. We've got another six weeks to Proxima B and I want to get home in one piece. Bryce has to stay sharp, monotony or not. If we hit something or miss our trajectory because he's distracted . . ."
"Don't worry, I'm sure it's nothing serious."
Commander Mason was more worried than he wanted to let on. If Bryce was experiencing a sensor problem, he should have simply reported it. It wasn't unheard of for stemplant impulses to leak across channels or for the brain to misinterpret the input. But Bryce had been thoroughly vetted and trained, and the ship’s systems had been rigorously tested. There was no reason to suspect a problem with either the man or the equipment.
"Bryce, you got a minute?" Steve opened another private com channel. It was annoying to have to act as a go-between, but that was sometimes part of command.
"Make it quick, I'll only be here another three years or so," Bryce replied deadpan.
"What's with the poem? You know it doesn't belong in the log. Why didn't you put it in your personal notes?”
"It's dark between the stars, Steve, and cold, colder than time itself. We need warmth to see us through our winter of discontent. We need clarity to light the way."
Steve paused for a moment, puzzled, then decided to follow an intuition.
"So, you’re looking at Sirius? Hot and bright?"
"The Dog Star. I thought you might pick up on that. But I'll bet Logan didn't. He should've worn a helmet when he was playing football at the academy. He doesn't see what I see."
"Logan is a good man, steady. I trust him on scan just as I trust you. Imagination is a good thing, but sometimes it can be a distraction. We can't afford distractions."
"The universe is both larger and smaller than our imagination, Steve. Where you are is as much a matter of perspective as of physics. If I steer us clear of the rocks, then does it matter whether they're real?"
Steve paused again, then decided not to push it further.
"Maybe not. Just maybe keep your mind on the mission, okay? We're counting on you to get us home again."
"Will do, Commander. You can depend on me."
Can I? Steve didn't feel completely reassured. Bryce was definitely off kilter. The big question was whether Bryce could hold it together long enough to complete the mission.
Hermes Log – Day 1277 – Steve Mason
Tomorrow is the big day. We’ll find out if all the sacrifice is worth it. We’re too far away for this log to reach Earth by radio, but no matter what happens, Hermes will be the first human ship to visit another star system. Maybe that’s enough.
“Bryce, I’m worried about your state of mind. Logan has noticed it as well. We can calculate the slingshot maneuver if you’re not feeling up to it.”
“I understand your concern, guys, but it’s not necessary. If anything, I’m more qualified now than when we started. I’m fully integrated with the ship’s sensors and computers. I’m feeling more ‘up’ than any human ever has. I can feel the universe, Steve. Space-time flows in streams around gravity wells and I can taste the stars. The sultry orange spark of Arcturus, the warm cinnamon glow of Betelgeuse, hot blue Sirius. Don’t you feel it, Steve?”
“I see instrument readouts and camera views. I hear the radio and I can hear you and Logan. I'm in a virtual control cabin, Bryce, just like we expected. I don’t feel anything more than that.”
“What about you, Logan, can you feel the ship’s sensors? Open your mind and taste the universe. It’s an amazing experience.”
“Uh, that’s um, interesting, Bryce, but I’m in the control cabin with Steve. My only concern is flying the ship and getting home again.”
“Don’t worry Logan, we have to get home because I can’t get to Sirius from here. I need to refuel before I can go out again. Sirius is only 8.6 light years from Earth, and I can get there in four years subjective time if we juice up the boost system to get .86 C.”
Bryce wasn’t just responsible for plotting a course home, he was the reason they’d left Earth in the first place. He’d supplied the final piece of the puzzle, literally, after being T-boned by a drunk driver less than a mile from his NASA office. The severed spinal cord was irreparable, but his brain stem interface, popularly known as a stemplant, provided for direct neural control of prosthetic limbs. Bryce realized that the implant could also allow him to integrate his brain with the ship's systems. He could send his brain to Alpha Centauri and leave his useless body behind.
The idea was initially dismissed as too macabre, but Bryce persisted. He pointed out that the brain accounts for only 20% of the human body’s metabolic requirements. Life support that could nourish the body for one year would last more than five years for a disembodied brain in a biotank. Everyone agreed that having a human presence would vastly improve the odds of success. Bryce argued that it didn’t necessarily require an entire human.
A nutrient bath, supplied through the vertebral and carotid arteries, would nourish and oxygenate the brain cells. Waste products would flow through the jugular veins and be filtered out by dialysis. With full control of blood pressure, and a purpose-built cranial cushion, the ‘brain in a box’ would be able to withstand high G acceleration far better than a body with heart and lungs.
And a disembodied brain doesn’t need an exercise facility, hydroponic garden, galley, shower, or toilet. There’d be no need for cabins, corridors, or even a conventional control room. Hermes, not unlike a smartphone, could be built as one solid piece of equipment with a tiny cross section.
The stemplant had been developed to improve the lives of quadriplegics such as veteran test pilot Steve Mason, injured when a canopy failed to open fully during an emergency ejection. Or astronaut Logan Reynolds, diagnosed with ALS while serving his first assignment at moon base Armstrong. Steve and Logan had both lobbied to be included when Bryce had put forth his solution for the Alpha Centauri mission.
Hermes Log – Day 1279 – Logan Reynolds
The Proxima slingshot went as planned and we’re on course for Centauri AB. Bryce says we’ll need a course correction, but our fuel reserves are adequate. I feel like we just might make it home. Proxima B definitely has water oceans and an oxygen atmosphere. We didn’t detect radio transmissions, but there were lights on the nightside that might have been artificial.
“Nice and smooth, Logan. You made that look easy.”
“I just followed your flight plan, Bryce. It was spot on.”
“Good work, guys. I love it when a plan comes together. I wish I’d thought to bring a virtual cigar.”
“It was fun, Steve, the slingshot maneuver felt kind of like surfing. No, more like skateboarding! I could feel Proxima’s gravity well as we went by. It was like dropping into a bowl at the skate park when I was a kid. And then the thrusters kicked us out again at the perfect angle. It’s beautiful and hard to describe, but definitely fun. I can hardly wait to do it again at Centauri B.”
“Are you sure there weren’t any radio signals?”
“Sorry, Logan. We didn’t detect anything at any frequency. And if we didn’t hear them, then they wouldn’t have heard us.”
“Do you think those lights were cities, Bryce?”
Logan was still hopeful about the possible existence of a Centauran civilization.
“I don’t know. Could have been something natural like forest fires, I guess, but there were a lot of ‘em. I’d vote for towns, but data analysis back on Earth should tell us one way or the other.”
“Do you think they saw us?”
“Not with the naked eye. And even with a good telescope, they only had a few minutes to spot us coming or going. No, I think we’re going to have to come back to really say hello.”
Hermes Log – Day 1382 – Steve Mason
Things went to hell in a hurry. We had to dodge an unexpected asteroid after lining up on Centauri B. No time to get back on course. We still have a shot at Centauri A if we act quickly. Thank God it’s a binary star.
“We’ve only got about ten minutes before we head off toward Antares, Steve. We have to change course immediately to have any chance of getting home. Even so, we’ll pass dangerously close to Centauri A.”
“Alright, do it. No sense waiting till the last second.”
“Hit it on my mark, Logan. Give it everything for thirty seconds. If we miss the new slingshot window, then the fuel won’t matter.”
Steve wished he could still hold his breath as they waited for Bryce’s signal.
The ship’s nose swung almost imperceptibly as the ionic thrusters fired. At their distance from Sol, even a tiny nudge would make a huge difference in their chances of getting home.
“Are we there?”
Steve’s question came almost before Logan cut the thrusters.
“Maybe, but I can’t be sure until we get past the corona. A flare from Centauri A might just cook us. I wish we could get a bit more thrust, but we’re awfully low on fuel. Can you goose the thrusters somehow, Logan?”
“They only do what they do, Bryce, but I could turn the ship and deploy the sail. It’d give a lot of thrust that close to a star.”
“That might work! We wait until the last minute and then open the sail. We’d lose speed for a few seconds, but then accelerate for minutes after going by.”
“And the sail will shield us from the heat,” Logan added.
“That’s a great idea, Logan, but will the sail survive?”
“I think so, Steve. It survived the beam for four months.”
“I love it,” Bryce laughed. “We’ll turn our backside and moon Centauri as we go by!”
Logan wished he still had eyes to roll.
“I’ll turn the ship now, and keep the nose pointed away from Centauri. The smaller area we expose to the corona, the better our chances of surviving the slingshot. Let me know when to deploy the sail.”
“Just a couple more minutes, Logan, open the hatch now.”
“Bryce, the temp is way up and we’re pulling too many Gs.”
“Can’t be helped, Steve. The only way out is through. We’ll know for sure in five minutes.”
Steve watched the hull temp continue to climb as acceleration leveled off at 8.5 G. This was a much tighter arc than the maneuver at Proxima. Even a brain in a box couldn’t survive long under these conditions. The ship’s reflective surface had dulled during the trip, and Steve could only hope that the sail would shield them from the worst. The temperature inside remained just below lethal as Hermes skimmed the corona of Centauri A.
“My God, it’s beautiful,” Bryce said. “I hate to block the view, but it’s time to unfurl the sail.”
“I see it too, Bryce,” Logan said with awe. “I get it now.”
That was the last thing Steve heard as he lost consciousness.
“Bryce, Logan? Are we all still alive?”
"Yeah, we made it, Steve, thanks to Logan. The sail made just enough difference. We're headed home, I think."
"There isn't much fuel left, but we can make it if we don’t have to dodge another asteroid."
Hermes Log – Day 1324 – Steve Mason
We survived the Centauri A slingshot, but it was literally touch and go. Jack nearly burned his ass on that candle. Three and a half years of boredom followed by 10 minutes of sheer terror. Logan was a rock, he followed Bryce’s lead precisely. Bryce was an artist, he seemed to be navigating more by intuition than logic.
“That one felt like skateboarding inside the rim of a volcano,” Bryce said. “It was almost too intense, like getting a glimpse of Heaven.”
“Seemed more like the other place to me,” Steve replied. “I didn't think we were going to get out alive.”
“You didn’t see it, Steve. At least not the way Bryce and I did. It changes everything. We have to get home or at least close enough to send the data. They have to know.”
Hermes Log – Day 2392 – Steve Mason
Logan found the guide beam today. Luckily, we’re not far off center, so our fuel is adequate to zero in as we approach Sol. With a few drops to spare!
“Hermes to Armstrong base. We made it to Centauri! The mission is a success and all crew are safe and well. We’ve picked up the guide beam and will correct course immediately. Hit us with the main beam as scheduled. Transmission of science data follows.”
It would take months for Steve's message to reach Earth, but connecting with the guide beam made him feel like they were already there.
“Way to go guys, we’re almost home. The data is already on its way. It’ll be interesting to see what improvements they’ve made to the place in the last eleven years.
Hermes Log – Day 2454 – Logan Reynolds
We picked up the boost beam today. Deceleration feels strange after years of weightlessness. Three more months and we’ll be home. But I'm not sure what that means anymore.
“I have to go out again, Steve. There’s nothing for me on Earth. I don’t want to be a curiosity, a brain in a box living a second-hand life through prosthetics. Out here I’m more than human, I'm a space craft with a mission. And I really do want to see Sirius," Bryce said wistfully.
“Like a moth to the flame?”
“You're not completely off base.”
“I think I get it. But I’d go easy on the ‘I’m a spaceship’ talk. You’ll have to convince mission control that you’re not crazy.”
"He's not crazy, Steve. I'm beginning to see it myself. Sirius would be a great trip, and then we can go back to Proxima B. Maybe they'll have radio by then, if not, we could drop them a set with instructions. Or maybe we can leave a small satellite behind. It could make observations and then a third trip could collect the data."
"Logan, those are some very interesting ideas. I think you've made a convert, Bryce."
“What about you, Steve?”
“I’d like to get back into a human body. The docs said they might be able to clone me a new one by now. I don’t know, maybe I’m too old, maybe my brain isn’t flexible enough. I just didn’t see what you did. But I’ll do what I can to convince mission control that you should go out again.”
"There's a lot to do and see, Steve. It just takes patience. We don’t know how long a brain can survive in a biotank. Whatever time I do have, I intend to use it to push the limits. Anyway, Earth feels too small now that I’ve glimpsed the universe.”
“What about you Logan, are you up for another 8-year mission?”
“If Bryce is going out there to see new things, then I’m going with him. And, who knows? Maybe I'll be my own ship someday.”
Author's note: ▼ 6110 words