I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing the moon so close up.
We’ve been out here four months now, and my breath catches every time I pass through the observation module and it’s just there, hanging impossibly large in the sky. The perfectly crisp edges of craters and mountains are picked out in astonishing contrast against the blackness.
I pull myself together and move on, up to the second lab module, where Fiona’s waiting for me.
We nod a quick greeting and I velcro myself into position by the terminal. Small talk ran out a while back, and nobody seems to miss it too much. From our tiny tin can in orbit, it’s hard to avoid an overdeveloped sense of perspective. The only topics left are the big ones, and it gets exhausting talking about those things all the time.
The seedlings are coming along well. Fiona’s proposal for a low-pressure hydroponics approach seems to have been right on the money. It’s early days yet, only the second generation, but the signs are exciting. One day, this technology might form a core part of sustaining millions of human lives in space. Those lives will all be depending on us not overlooking anything now.
Like I said — it’s tough to avoid the big thoughts here.
“I SAID HIT THE WARP!”
“I’m going as fast as I can; I can’t rush these calculations! The risks of — ”
“We have literally seconds before they’re here and boarding us! If that happens, we’ll get to spend the rest of our lives in agony at the hands of their interrogators. HIT THE WARP NOW!”
“Fine, but I’m not responsible for whatever happens.”
“DO IT DO IT DO IT”
The navigation system is forced to accept a fully uncalibrated warp plan, but it adds another thirty or so angry flashing lights and warning sounds to the cacophonous disco that’s already filling the bridge.
As the warp drive warms up to go who-knows-where, huge arcs of static start crackling around the ship. Reality doesn’t like being ripped apart, and it angrily punishes the craft for its lack of respect. This is nothing new though, and the Faraday extender does its job transforming instant death into a light show.
The warp drive switches to phase two: pushing the ship through softened and twisted space. The ship starts shuddering, the crewmates shooting nervous glances at each other.
“84–20 and dropping”
“Did we lose them”
“86–18 … 16 … 14 … dropping”
“Shit, looks like they’ve managed to slip inside our warp tail — they’re still with us!”
“Set up a 4-jump chain. Destinations unimportant — open space preferable, but I know you don’t have time to double-check”
“Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?”
“Do you have any idea how dangerous they are?”
“Ugh, shit, ok… setting that up… If we survive this, it’ll be a miracle.”
The ship bursts out into 3-space in a mess of sparks and plasma. The drive find purchase for a moment before heading off to the next destination.
A new set of warnings start flashing.
“Uh, we’ve picked something up”
“Not sure — some debris I think. Maybe a small asteroid. Must have been within our event horizon when we came down. It’s interfering with the drive calculations. I’m gonna need to change this or we’ll smear into each other”
“Quick as you can then. How’s our tail looking?”
“Still there, but we’ve pulled away a bit. OK, that’s done. Proceeding to come down for the second time. I’m hoping that we can push that debris away with our wash before we jump for the third time.”
Without any warning, every surface in the lab module crackled with static and then went dark. A vivid flashing light poured in from the hatch to the observation module. I feel the whole craft start to shudder and twist around us.
I see flashes of the terrified expression on Fiona’s face. We’re both paralysed by fear, bodies rooted to the tortured station by velcro straps.
And then, it all stopped.
A space craft isn’t meant to be a silent place. There should be all kinds of humming and beeping from the various systems keeping its occupants alive. It had all stopped. The only sound now was of metal creaking.
“… Fiona? You OK?”
“…I …think so?”
“What just happened?”
“The only thing I can think that could have done that is a nuclear explosion… But, surely not…”
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I realised that there was still some light coming from the observation module. Reaching down, I gingerly removed the velcro that had somehow managed to hold me in place, and I pushed myself down towards the light.
Reaching the windows, I could see that the light was coming from the moon. But it had shifted significantly from where it had been a few minutes earlier. As I stared at it, Fiona moved up beside me.
“Does it look different to you? The Sea of Serenity is the wrong shape.”
She was right — this was the moon, but it had changed. We glanced at each other, confused, and started to make our way towards the command module.
As we picked our way through the modules, with only occasional glimpses of moonlight to see by, the reality of our situation started sinking in. With no life support, we’d only have a matter of hours before the temperature dropped below freezing. We pushed on towards command.
All US space craft carry a high-power telescope as an ultimate backup in case of total radio and optics failure. Protocol was to find Houston and watch for morse code flashes. There was a movable mirror attached to the outside of the observation module to reply using the sun’s light. Technology from the 1800’s. No electronics. Very smart.
It hardly mattered though. As soon as we started focussing on the Earth, trying to pin down the mission control center, it was obvious that it wouldn’t be there. The continents were the wrong shape.
North America was there, but Africa was missing, and South America was colossal. It was a while before we realised what we were looking at: a much younger Earth than the one we left.
That realisation ended any slim hope we had of survival. Nobody would be able to scramble a Soyuz and take us home for millions of years. We had a few hours left to live.
That knowledge hit different members of the crew very differently.
Some of us broke down. Some tried to make sense of how we’d got here.
Fiona and I decided to try and spend our last minutes becoming the first human beings ever to see living dinosaurs. One of the post-small-talk conversations the crew had fairly early on was “you have sixty minutes left to live — what do you do?” Nobody had picked dinosaur watching. I guess you never know how you’ll react in that situation until you’re there.
I remembered seeing in a documentary that brontosaurus lived in Colorado, so that’s where we started looking. Despite the 70? 100? million years, it looked familiar. It was covered in rich forests, with mountains and lakes punctuating the trees.
The air was cold. Wrapped up in reflective blankets, we took turns at the telescope in five minute shifts.
Fiona saw them first. When she pulled away from the telescope, tears were streaming down her face. Wordlessly, she guided me to the eyepiece, and after a moment’s adjustment, I saw them too.
Around the south end of a huge lake, there were dozens of huge creatures. Some were drinking at the water, others were feeding on the trees. They were obviously making their way to the east — they’d cut a swath through the trees behind them.
Fiona and I carried on taking turns watching, until we weren’t able to any longer.