There are several problems with trying to travel faster than light.
The first, of course, is getting matter to move that fast without expending all the energy in the universe. The “c” in E=mc
But humanity has never been fond of limits, and eventually found a way around that speed limit. With great pomp and ceremony the first ever “super-c” ship was launched…and crashed almost immediately into a micrometeorite. The explosion was fascinating and quite pretty; it’s not every day an explosion seems to suddenly appear and then shrink back down to a single point, then explode again as time and lightspeed catch up with the event. This led to the second problem with trying to travel faster than light: you can’t really see where you’re going, only where you’ve been. It’s like a metaphor for life. And, much like life, things you didn’t see coming can ruin your day.
Again, humanity tried to find a way to get around the problem. They started with things like moving screens ahead of the ships, sweeping up anything that might cause another relativistic explosion, or sending a giant wall of ice in front of the ship, for the same reason. And this kind of worked for a while and humans were able to move around between the stars and occasionally survive. But there had to be a better way.
That better way was surprisingly un-mechanical. An enterprising young statistician discovered that some people that seemed to have insanely good luck. With a little study it turned out that some of these people had a special ability to “remember” things that would happen to them in the future. With time and training and more study they were able to focus on decisions, see ahead, and see how decisions now affected what was going to happen in their future.
These people, soon called “precognitives” and eventually “precogs” were in massive demand overnight as nations and companies realized they could put a precog on a super-c ship and the precog can steer by avoiding futures where they crashed into things. Schools were opened, training courses started, and for a while precogs were a hot commodity. Certain families seemed to have the gift, and for a while they were insanely wealthy. Then the gift was found and cultivated in others who would work on the super-c ships for less than the original families. And the price of hiring a precog fell and soon several interstellar companies started flying between the stars.
Helen Anders was the captain of one such ship. Fifty years old, her hair was cut short and her blue eyes were piercing. And at present she was short one precog.
Super-c ships can’t fly without a precog on duty. If you don’t have a precog you have to fly at sub-c speeds and given the distances between stars that’s tantamount to standing still. So the star liners generally didn’t leave port without two precogs on board at minimum.
And one of the precogs that had worked on the Sea Lion had just walked off.
You couldn’t stop them. They knew where they were going to be, you didn’t. The downside was that they could wander off whenever they wanted. The upside was that you generally had a new precog right away. The new member of your crew also just knew it was time to be on your ship. But you didn’t know when they were coming, and the interim was always trying for the punctual Captain Anders.
Captain Anders sighed, sitting on the bridge. “How long has it been, Brian?” She asked.
“Only thirty-six hours, ma’am,” said her first mate, Brian Hellman. Brian was young, eager, and carried himself with a by-the-rules attitude that Captain Anders kinda hated, but had come to rely on. Anders flew by experience. She’d been doing this almost as long as super-c flight had existed. She had good instincts and skills that nobody had gotten around to putting into curricula yet. Brian had a brand new degree (he’d used books Helen had written in his classes) and a burning faith in super-c travel. A year aboard the Sea Lion had tempered some of that fiery zeal with experience, and there was every sign that he would end up a better captain than she was in a few years. He definitely had more patience. with another sigh Captain Anders stood up.
“I’ll be in my office, Brian. Tell me when our new precog shows…”
There was a chime from the hailing port. “Hello Sea Lion! Precognitive pilot Aaron Stantz reporting for duty.”
Brian opened the door and the captain sat back down. There was no point in sending someone to go get him, he’d remember the path he was going to take to get to the bridge and would just follow that path.
Aaron was also young, which kind of annoyed the captain. All young kids these days. he had curly black hair and shining black eyes. His smile was bright and infectious; Anders had a hard time not smiling in response. “Sorry it took me so long. I know you hate waiting, Captain.”
There was no point in denying it, so she didn’t. “That’s quite all right, Mr. Stantz,”
“Call me Aaron,” he said, not quite cutting her off, but almost.
“Thank you, Aaron. Well, if you’re ready to depart,”
“I am. I dropped my bag off in my quarters. And hey, it’s my shift!” With that the new pilot walked down to the “Precog pit”, a pilot’s seat that was lower than the floor of the bridge, and shielded from both sound and light. He put the precog shroud over his head, and the ship started to move.
Their first run with Aaron on board went pretty much as expected. The two precogs on board took 12 hour shifts in the pit. Modern super-c freighters had very little for the captain to do unless things went bad. They were in flight for three weeks, standard run to Alpha Centauri.
By long-standing convention, the captain and first mate took 12 hour shifts that straddled the shifts taken by the two precogs, so precog duty cycles fell in the middle of the command duty cycles.
Which meant Helen got a few minutes to talk to Aaron, as he came on shift, and Ligaya, the Filipina precog who had been on board since Helen had taken command of the Sea Lion eight years ago. They were almost complete opposites. Aaron was young, outgoing, insanely talkative, but never held still long enough to have a real conversation. Ligaya was only a few years younger than Helen, and seemed, to most people, to be reticent to the point of snobbishness. Those who spoke Filipino made jokes about a woman whose name meant “happy” being so somber. In their time serving together, however, Helen had discovered that Ligaya was in fact a very happy person; she was just very self conscious about talking to people, fearing that they’d judge her for being a precog that they’d reject her and throw her out as had happened in her youth. Helen and Ligaya had formed their friendship years earlier, and generally Ligaya spent a few hours each day on the bridge, talking with the captain as she went about her duties.
“How long until you buy your own ship, Helen?”
“You mean you don’t know? I hoped you’d be on my crew.”
“Your plans aren’t really set in stone, or even paper, are they, though?”
Helen laughed. “I guess that’s true. I’ve got about half of what I need to make a down payment saved up. At the end of this year, if things go well, I’ll be able to make an offer on this tin can without being laughed out of the bank. My latest raise, and the royalties from that textbook I wrote, have given me a little more leeway.”
“The Sea Lion isn’t a bad ship.”
“I know that, Li-li, or I wouldn’t be saving up to buy her.”
“How will you get work if you’re not part of a company fleet?”
“I’m hoping the company will still contract with me; and I’ll be able to take other jobs as well. If I can charge even a little less than the company I’ve still got my name and the name of this ship on the service records and I won’t look like a big risk to shipping managers. Who knows, with the money I’ll be getting I might even be able to take on a full crew.”
“It’s a nice plan, Helen. I look forward to it.”
the Sea Lion docked at the Alpha Centauri spaceport without incident, and thus began the long wait. Once the ship was docked the captain and first mate became effectively invisible; the most important person on board now was Alan the Cargo Master, orchestrating the detachment, unloading, and re-loading of the forty ten-thousand ton cargo pods. The process usually took about three weeks.
The rest of the crew, all seven of them, spent most of their time on the station. A few who felt they had money to spare would take furloughs to one of the colonies. Helen generally slept on the ship and spent a few hours a day on the station, catching up with other captains and pilots she knew as they came through. AC was a major shipping hub.
One week into their time at AC port one of Helen’s former first mates walked into the common area and saw her.
“Captain Anders! Fancy meeting you here!”
“Jenna! How are you?”
“Good. Good. I’m flying the Diligent now.”
“Government ship? So you’re a real captain, then.”
Jenna nodded and somewhat self-consciously touched the insignia on the shoulder of her uniform. “I know you have some…reservations about flying for the government…”
“Jenna, no! I’m happy you found good work. You’ve always been very good at what you do. Don’t worry.”
Jenna nodded, visibly relieved and sat down, ordering a drink and a refill for her former captain. “Are you still flying the Sea Lion?” She asked. Helen nodded.
“She’s been through a few renovations since you were on board, and she’s only a few years out of date now. Ligaya is still on board, but we’ve got a new Precog this trip. Aaron Stantz.”
Jenna smiled at the name. “So that’s where he went. He left us at Jupiter Port and didn’t tell us until he was on the shuttle to Earth Port. We’d kinda guessed he’d left because his replacement showed up before he called.”
“You’ve flown with him? How is he?”
Jenna shrugged, “You’ve flown with him for at least three weeks now. I liked him, and he does a good job. He’s probably not your style, though, Captain. Give him a chance; he tries new things and more than once has shaved a few days off of our time.”
“How does a precog try new things?” Helen asked.
“Well, you know how they like, look down paths in the future based on choices they make now?” Helen nodded. “When Aaron was flying with us he was trying to do what he called ‘double-segment’ navigation, where he not only looks at the outcome of his current choices, but the next set of choices after that. So instead of navigating based on three or four choices he was working on somewhere between nine and sixteen.”
“How?? I thought precogs couldn’t hold that many possibilities.”
Jenna shrugged again. “Beats me. He says he does mental exercises and can ‘up his game’ by practicing. he says he can even read a few paths for other people now.”
“He says that when he’s touching another person he can read a few ‘echoes’, as he calls them, and get at least four paths for that person.”
Helen just shook her head. “Things keep changing, Jenna. The Galaxy just keeps moving on.”
Jenna laughed affectionately. “That’s partially your fault, Captain. You were one of the first and you’re still one of the best. If the galaxy is changing you’re the one who changed it.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
A week later the agreements were all made, and the Sea Lion was loaded with new cargo, destined for Andromeda. Helen had mixed feelings. The AC to Andromeda run was a long one, but her cargo holds were all full and so this would be a profitable run. The two months at top speed would net her more than making Earth to AC runs that entire time.
Brian arrived back at the ship just hours before they were to depart.
“How was the colony, Brian?”
“Very relaxing, Captain.”
“Did you meet a girl? Or do you already have a girl there?”
Brian smiled. “Aaron told me I’d meet someone nice. He wasn’t wrong.”
“Well, good for you,” Captain Anders said. Apparently Jenna had been right.
Aaron entered the bridge and nodded to them both. “Andromeda here we come!” he said and stepped down into the precog pit, and moved the ship out into empty space where they could engage the super-c engines.
It should have been an easy trip. Though long, the run between the two oldest human colonies was well run, and most hazards had been cleaned up, the space lanes maintained at least at the ends, by government patrols.
And it would have been an easy trip, if Aaron hadn’t kept up his mental exercises.
“He has cut at least a day and a half off of our trip so far, Ligaya,” Helen was telling her oldest friend. as Aaron got settled in the pit and moved them back up to super-c.
“I know, Helen, but I’m not sure it’s safe. He’s been getting headaches, and sometimes he comes out of the pit sweating and looking like he’s just run a marathon. He says he’s close to something big, but if he burns himself out it’ll take us half a year to get to Andromeda, and that’s with me working 18 hour shifts.”
“Okay, Li-li. I’ll keep an eye on him.”
Ligaya nodded, and was about to leave when there was a scream from the pit. The two women looked at one another and Captain Anders pressed the button to open the pit cover.
Aaron was lying back in the pit, staring straight up. The ship lurched, then lurched again. Aaron was still trying to fly her even has he screamed and trembled. His pupils were pinpoints, trying to filter out a light only he could see.
“Too Many!!!! Far far far too many! Help! Every path, every way!!!” Aaron screamed.
“Get him out of there!” Anders ordered and reached down to pull the trembling, sweating precog out.
“Captain, no! If you remove him from the pit the ship will be flying blind, and I can’ reconfigure in mid-flight! WE’ve got to get him under control!”
Brian arrived, his communicator having notified him of an unscheduled pit cover opening. “Captain, what’s happening?”
“Our precog tried to see more pathways than was good for him, it looks like he’s overloaded…”
“Every future…twisting, turning, merging, splitting….every breath…” for a man having a fit Aaron was surprisingly eloquent.
“How do we get him back under control?” Brian asked. Captain Anders looked at Ligaya, who shook her head, tears in her eyes. “He’s trying to see the whole future, every possibility, it’s not possible…”
But Helen wasn’t listening. she remembered what Jenna had said. “Brian, you said Aaron told you that you’d meet someone nice on AC. How did he do that?”
“He…he put his hand on my forehead and closed his eyes for a moment. I…I guess he can kind of…look through someone else?”
“But not as clearly…” Captain Anders finished. She took one of Aaron’s hands and set it on her own forehead., laying on the floor of the bridge so his hand would reach. She closed her own eyes.
It was like an explosion in her mind. Or the echoes of an explosion. In the center of it she felt the screaming form of Aaron, or Aaron’s mind…the experiences didn’t fit well into words. “Aaaron!” She called out, “Aaron Stantz! Look here! Look through me!”
In her mind she saw Aaron turn, his eyes flashing every color of the rainbow, around him a riot of fireworks and explosions. As her mental eyes adjusted she saw the fireworks were…experiences. In one of them she saw his mental self lay a hand on her mental forehead and the explosions slowed.
He reached out, touched her, mind to mind. The writhing, exponentially divided futures around him dimmed, some dropping out. Helen wrenched her eyes open and looked at Brian with her natural eyes. “Put my hand on your forehead, Brian! We need another filter!”
She found she could see some of the futures now herself. And then she saw Brian, or Brian’s mind, all blue and shot through with white stripes, orderly, eager and scared. In her mind she reached out and saw her own arm, a deep purple and gold, reach out to him.
And the rainbow mess that was Aaron slowed, the colors stopped whirling. He looked down through a tunnel made of the captain and the first mate, got his visions under control, and slowed the ship to sub-c, dropping back into relative space. It seemed to take forever, and Helen could feel the strain of it on Brian’s mind. She could feel him start to pick up extra colors, his sharp outline start to fray. She poured a little bit of her energy into holding him together. Brian started to shake, both physically and mentally.
Finally, it was done. They were back in relative space, moving at less than .1c. The shining gold being that was Aaron’s mind said “We can disconnect now…” or he would say that, or he had said that in another future…
Helen opened her physical eyes. Aaron had pulled his hand back, breaking the link, or weakening it. Helen removed her hand from Brian’s forehead and he collapsed on the deck.
Helen looked at him, and remembered herself carrying him to his quarters, then remembered herself talking to Ligaya as she carried Brian to his quarters. Alternately she remembered herself talking to Aaron as they waited for Brian to wake up. For a brief moment she saw all of the future flaring out in front of her, the threads twisting and recombining. But she forced herself to focus, to listen to the conversation she might have with Aaron in a moment.
“It gets easier, Captain,” Aaron would say, if that conversation occurred. “Soon you’ll be able to pick and choose.”
“I feel…the same. I thought it would be more complex than this.”
“It’s not,” Aaron would say, and smile.
But she didn’t choose that path. She picked up her first mate, with Ligaya’s help, as Aaron smiled, an went back to taking the ship up to super-c speeds. He left the precog pit open this time.
Somehow as they carried the sleeping first mate Helen could feel her friend exploring future pathways as well. Her eyes were nervous. She looked over at Helen and said, feigning lightness “well, now you can buy this ship faster, since you’ll only have to pay for one precog.”
“Oh no,” Helen said, and she felt the future running in front of her as she said it. “I’ll always travel with two, but it’s nice to know that we have a spare.”