My name is James Holt. I am the ship’s Chief Engineer. Dr Stark has asked me to write an article for his intranet site which explains how the ship’s propulsion system works. My heart sank when he told me this was not allowed to contain any equations and must be written in language that an idiot could understand.
I would say that there are two important principles to grasp.
The first, and the easier one, is how the ship’s power plant generates energy. Our fuel tank is full of liquid methane which we scooped from the surface of Titan. We heat this up until the methane molecules fall apart and we get carbon (which we don’t need) and hydrogen. The hydrogen atoms go into a nuclear fusion reactor at very high temperature, where they join together to form helium. This process generates an enormous amount of energy. The contents of the fusion reactor are held inside a very strong magnetic field, which is what stops them from flying in all directions and vaporising the ship. The energy from the fusion reactor is used to power all the ship’s systems, from the air-conditioning and lighting to the propulsion unit.
Inside the propulsion unit is the device on which our entire ability to reach another solar system is based. A conventional rocket works by throwing material out of the back of it, and thereby generating forward motion by the reaction against the stuff that is thrown out. Our vessel (which I will refer to by its unofficial title of The Irish Rover, since that is what everybody calls it) does not work like that. I will try to explain how it does work by some analogies.
Imagine that space-time is a pool of water. Imagine also that the ship is like an aquatic creature living in that pool of water. The aquatic creature sucks water into itself and then squirts it out the back, thus driving itself forward. So does the ship, except that the stuff it squirts is not water: it is space-time. Consider another analogy. You are a man trying to get across a large room to a chair on the other side. The room has a very loosely-laid rug on the floor. The rug represents space-time. You can either walk across the rug to get to the chair, which is how vehicles such as cars, aeroplanes and conventional rockets travel, or you can grab the rug and pull it towards you. What we are doing now is analogous to doing both: we are both flying towards our destination, and pulling ourselves towards it at the same time. Each little bit of space-time that we compress immediately relaxes back to its original state after we have gone over it but, by that time, we have moved a bit closer to our destination and that is all we are concerned about.
Dr Stark asked me to say how fast we are travelling. We reached our maximum speed some time ago, and are currently travelling at about 0.9 of the speed of light. We re-use the same technology that the ship’s motor relies on to control gravity and inertia and thereby prevent the occupants of the ship from being crushed to death. If all the systems on board are working properly, the only people who can tell we are moving at all are those who can see an instrument panel or an astrodome (and access to both is restricted to senior members of the crew).
Our speed is not the only thing that determines how long it will take for us to reach our destination. The real distance of 19.4 light years between Earth and the Achird system will seem much less because of the effect I have described. To an observer on board the ship, the journey will appear to take about four years.
Dr Stark has also asked me to explain the changes that the ship will undergo when we prepare to land on Achird-gamma, but I will save that for when we are much nearer our destination.
My French tutor is called Pamela Collins, and she is a good teacher: very patient. She has one rule, which is that no spoken English at all is allowed in class. If we don’t understand something, we have to express our lack of understanding in French. There are about ten people in the class, all of about the same ability. When I am not contributing, I look at Pamela and try to work out what she is about. I cannot decide whether she is asexual, or the world’s worst lesbian, or just very neglectful of her appearance. Her clothes look like industrial cleaning rags that have been sewn back together.
Since I started attending her classes, I have noticed that she seems to have gravitated towards me in the refectory and the bar. She doesn’t speak to me. She doesn’t speak to anybody, but I have started to notice that she is there. I tend to speak French more enthusiastically when I am slightly drunk. If I engage her in conversation, she answers, but as soon as I stop, she stops. She doesn’t drink much, either. If it weren’t for her language ability, she would be completely unremarkable. I can’t even visualise what she looks like when she is having an orgasm. The only thing that Pamela has in common with Violet is the way she writes the letter f.
Last night we had a party to celebrate one year on board the ship, and Pamela was there as usual, but still did not contribute any merriment. I thought for one moment that I had seen a tear fall from her eye, but I may have imagined it.
That party last night was awful. It was the worst I have felt since I was wearing the wedding dress at the St Martin’s Lane Hotel. Kelvin, whether he was conscious of it or not, was basking in the glow of his celebrity. Men were slapping him on the back and shaking his hand, and women were fluttering their eyelashes at him and swooning. It was nauseating. You used to be able to rely on Kelvin to behave like a surly teenager on such occasions, and be cold, distant, and uncommunicative. He used to have no interest in what any-one else said, or did, or thought. Too much adoration seems to be re-shaping him into a public figure, and I don’t like it. The only other person who seems to see through him is Prude. I must admit she went up slightly in my estimation after she made that formal complaint about me. I have even removed all my surveillance devices from her cabin. I don’t feel threatened by her any more.
Among all the drinking and dancing last night, the thought that I could not suppress and which made me saddest of all was about Horace. I allowed myself another little peek at “him”, all four cells of “him”. For “his” sake, I hope the planet we are heading for turns out to be habitable. I sometimes look at Kelvin and wonder why we could not have stayed at home. I remembered the night Horace was conceived, and I allowed myself another tear. I did feel better for a moment. I at least had a moment of clarity: I stood up, oxidised all of what little alcohol I had drunk, did a large acetaldehyde-smelling burp into the face of the person next to me, and went back to my cabin. I lay on my bunk, waiting for the sound of Kelvin returning to his, which he did somewhat unsteadily about three hours later. I can see him as well as hear him if I want, but it is somehow more compelling and often funnier just to listen.
He was singing The Wild Rover when he fell through the cabin door, slammed it shut behind him, and tottered into the bathroom. He remembered to brush his teeth and drink his two tumblers of water (and he still has not worked out why he gets worse hangovers since he stopped living with me). He took his clothes off, which was quite a struggle, and dropped them all on the floor. I happen to know that his cabin is on Pamela’s job-sheet for tomorrow, and so she might be picking them up. He crawled into bed, and his singing gradually quietened. After a while, I thought I could hear him crying again. He said something, but it was so quiet that, even after applying various transformations to the data, I still can’t make it out.