The story behind the first interstellar drive
|The Goodbye Drive
"It'll never happen," declared Arnold decisively, setting down his drained beer glass with finality. "The distances are too great and we can never develop a drive fast enough."
Dan shrugged as though it mattered not to him. "Oh I admit the problem of distance is a tough one. But the drive system is possible. I know that for a fact."
"Then you know a lot more than the top scientists. They all say it's just dreaming to imagine a drive fast enough to make interstellar travel practical." Arnold paused to catch the eye of the bartender and to signal refills for them both. "All that science fiction stuff about hyperdrives and faster-than-light speeds is complete fantasy. Even if someone did come up with a way to do it, the amount of fuel you'd need to carry you the distance would be huge. You'd have to take a fuel tank as big as the earth with you. It's just impossible."
He stood up and retrieved their drinks from the bar. As he sat down again and set a full glass before Dan, he continued, "Sorry, old man, but you've lost this one. Drown your sorrows in that."
Dan nodded his thanks and took a long pull at his beer. Then he settled back into his chair. "You weren't listening, Arnie. I said I know this for a fact. I've seen it done."
His friend snorted in derision. "Oh come on, Dan, that's ridiculous. You expect me to believe that?"
"I'm only telling you the truth. I've seen it done." Dan reached forward and took another swig of beer.
"Then how come I've never heard of it?" asked Arnold. "If anyone had invented a drive like that, it would be all over the newspapers and television. And what about the fuel problem? I don't see how anyone could get around that. You're having me on."
Dan smiled confidently. "Fuel's no problem. There isn't any, you see."
"What?" Arnold shook his head and laughed. "Now I know you're joking, Dan. For a moment there I thought you were serious."
When Dan just sat and looked back at him, Arnold realized that his friend intended to stick with this one. He sighed and sat back, ready for a long discussion. "Okay then, I'll buy it. Tell me about this drive of yours."
"Oh, I didn't say it was mine, Arnie. I suppose it should be named after its inventor, Harry Hackenzweiler, but I always think of it as the Goodbye Drive."
Dan raised a hand then to stop the obvious question. "You'll see why. It's a long story."
He took another sip from his glass and continued. "Harry was my neighbor when I lived out at Martleby, oh, way back in the seventies, long before I met you. He was a funny little guy, just like you'd imagine a mad inventor to be. You know, wild gray hair, thick spectacles and a crazy look in his eye.
"We used to say hello when we passed in the street but I didn't really get to know him until I'd lived there for a couple of years. Then he started working in his backyard and we'd have a chat if I was out there too. Nothing much at first, the weather and maybe a bit about sport. After a while I became interested in what he was doing and asked. That was when it became strange.
"You see, he wasn't doing yard work. He was building something out there and curiosity got the better of me. So that day I just asked.
"And I was just like you, Arnie, when he told me it was a spaceship. I thought he was mad. But I'd got to quite like the guy by then so I humored him and played along. And, over the next few weeks, he explained how it was going to work."
Dan leaned forward and looked seriously into Arnold's eyes. "I tell you, it began to make a lot of sense. It was all a bit over my head at first, but he could tell when I didn't understand and he just explained in a different way until I got it. I forgot about him being insane and just listened."
He took a swig of beer and sat back again. "Ever hear of anti-gravity?" he asked.
Arnold raised an eyebrow. "Of course I have. And if you expect me to believe that there's any such thing, you've got another think coming."
"I tell you, I saw it with my own eyes." Dan appeared to be deadly serious. "Look, I don't fully understand it myself but I can explain a few basic principles. Harry reckoned that everyone had been looking at it from the wrong end. He agreed that there was no such thing as an anti-gravity engine but he said you didn't need one.
"What you needed was a shield. Just that - some way of shielding yourself from the nearest source of gravity. If you could find a way of doing that, other forces would come into play and you'd be propelled in an opposite direction from the gravitational body. Just imagine it, Arnie. You get a shield like that and put it underneath you and suddenly gravity stops holding you down. You'd shoot off the earth like... Well, like a rocket."
Arnold nodded slowly. He could see how it could work. But then a thought occurred to him. "Hang on a minute. It's still impossible. If you made a shield like that it would just go hurtling off as soon as you finished it. There'd be no way to hold it down long enough to get on."
"That's what I thought," agreed Dan. "But Harry explained that I only thought that because I was imagining a real shield, something made of metal or some other material. But anything physical like that won't work because it has its own gravity. You have to think in terms of forces. And, if you can create a force to shield yourself from gravity, to cancel it out, in fact, all you have to do is flick a switch to the motor that creates the force-field and zoom, you're off."
The expression of disbelief had left Arnold's face now. He had become interested enough in the theory to forget his objections. "But you said you saw it work. Are you seriously going to tell me that this Harry guy actually tried it?"
"I was getting to that. But let me tell you about the spaceship. There wasn't much to it really and Harry told me that it was much bigger than it had to be because of all the life support systems that he'd built into it. The motor itself was tiny. I suppose the ship was most like one of those modules that astronauts used to come back to earth in. Sorta conical in shape and about the same size too. Only there was this funny opening in the base with wires and tubes all around it.
"Harry didn't tell me much about how the motor worked. I think he was worried about the idea getting out and someone beating him to it. But it wouldn't have mattered; even what he did tell me was just double Dutch as far as I was concerned.
"Anyway, it ended up with me helping him build the thing. I've had a bit of electrical experience so that came in useful. And eventually we got it finished."
Dan paused to swallow down the last of his beer. His friend watched but said nothing.
"Came the day we were to test it. I worried that Harry might ask me to be the pilot but he didn't even suggest it. Just appeared that morning with all the gear on, you know, spacesuit and so on, and climbed aboard. There was nothing for me to do but watch. And the old feller grinned at me through one of the windows and gave me a thumbs up sign. Then he must have hit the button because this blue light started to glow at the base of the thing.
"I counted three seconds and then it lifted off. Without a word of a lie, Arnie, that weird thing lifted off the ground and started to accelerate upwards. Within five seconds it was really shifting. And five seconds later it was so high I lost sight of it. But the strangest thing of all was that it was completely silent. Damn thing made no noise at all."
Dan looked around at the bartender and signaled for more drinks. Arnold waited expectantly. But Dan seemed content with his story and said no more. When the fresh drinks had been supplied, Arnold could wait no longer.
"Well, what happened then?"
Dan shrugged. "Nothing really. That was it."
"Yup, never saw the guy again. For all I know, he's still racing around out there, hopping from star to galaxy and beyond."
"But, but..." Arnold was sputtering in his astonishment at his friend's cool acceptance of the situation. "But why didn't you tell someone about this? That's world news, man. And didn't anyone ever want to know where the old man had disappeared to?"
It was Dan's turn to snort in derision. "What, tell them a mad story like that and expect to be believed? They'd lock me up, Arnie. And, as for the old man, no-one even seemed to notice. We moved away quite soon after that but there was never anyone asking after him. Poor old sod must have had no relatives or friends at all. Except me."
He shook his head sadly.
Arnold narrowed his eyes suddenly. "You're not having me on, are you? If you are, I'll bloody murder you."
"Every word true, my friend. Wouldn't have believed it myself but I saw it with these two eyes. And I guess I'll never know what happened to the old man. I think he may have forgotten to put in some way of steering it."
He looked up at Arnold then with a grin. "Tell you one thing though. I wouldn't have missed it for anything. And I won't ever let anyone say that we can't reach the stars. Sooner or later someone else will reinvent the Goodbye Drive."
Word Count: 1,713