Getting up early, that’s your first problem. We were up late all week, not getting enough sleep, and by Wednesday the drain was getting to our heads. Willy got twitchy, misjudged how knotted his muscles were, and knocked his head hard on his bunk. Blood spraying in all directions, while he cussed like a sailor.
There was no time to clean up. We had to be up and run though the last checklists, batting and blowing away the blood droplets as they drifted across the air in front of our faces. Blood sucks in zero gee. Before long we all looked like a cast of zombies in a cheap horror movie, which was also pretty much how we felt.
Connor was stressed out. He had to calculate the sixteen thermonuclear blasts that would get us in position, and any mistake would send us broiling, one way or the other. He looked as hazy as all of us felt, and we were trying hard not to stare too hard at him as he hunched over his slide ruler and pencil, scribbling and cussing, spitting out the blood that he kept sucking in with every breath. He knew that we were all nervous about him, so making it any more obvious wasn’t going to help him focus.
Every few minutes he called out lengths of rope for Lee to measure and cut. And Lee repeated, and Willy repeated also for good measure, and Lee would cut the rope and Willy would plug it into the next nuke’s cap detonator. And then it was my job to load the nuke and rope into the launcher, close the hatch, cycle the airlock and yell out “Flash! Flash! Flash!” so everybody could cover their eyes.
Nukes are a very efficient form of propulsion for space travel, especially if you don’t intend to survive the week. Our thrust shield was engineered to give us a nice big fat kick out of each H-bomb explosion, but not to protect us from radiation. We were catching so much, so fast, that it made every moment surreal. We were the walking dead, or the floating dead really, waiting with a strangely not-so-morbid curiosity to find out which symptoms would show up first, and how fast each one of us would go.
We were all actually lucky. Humanity, I mean. Lucky that we discovered the theoretical possibility of a solar black-swan event, and modeled how it might be forecast, just a few years before it actually happened. Lucky that Pablø, Iceland’s supercreative AI, devised the hail-mary scheme of stabilizing the sun with nuclear bomb injections, launched from a nuke-propelled capsule. Lucky that four old geezers could be found who had the skills to navigate a spaceship by hand, using seventy-eight manually timed and spaced-out H-bomb detonations, since no electronics could survive the pummeling of seventy-eight electro-magnetic pulses. Very lucky for humanity that all this should come to pass. Not so lucky for Willy, Connor, Lee and me.
Amazingly, it was all working out: The nukes were blasting us, at increasingly suicidal speeds, right down into the sun, aiming straight at the angry red gash that had opened up just nineteen months ago. In four more hours we’d be able to load the slingshot with Big Boy, and crank the spring. Then we’d lay down to trigger the slingshot, and probably get crushed to death by the violent gees of separation. In layman’s terms, we’d be chucking a big fat nuke at the sun, using the same mechanism as a kid’s plastic toy gun.
And then we’d have another twenty minutes, thirty maybe, to experience all the novelty of being the first four humans to crash into the sun. Insightful Pablø had thoughtfully included a thermal shield on the top of our capsule, that would keep us relatively cool until we reached a hot enough layer… then we could blow it out, to ensure that we went up in a quick flame, rather than a slow broiling. We’d go fast when it was time to go, and until then, we could appreciate the novelty.
When the payload was sprung out it knocked the wind out of all of us. I think the foam in our gee-couches’ pillows must have been sublimated by the radiation, so we all hit our heads hard on the floor, and lost consciousness. When I came to, I was disoriented. I wasn’t weightless. My head and arms hung up from the couch, and my first thought was that we had been turned around somehow… but no: Temperature readings were stable. We were not heating up, and not plunging toward the sun anymore.
I scrabbled at the porthole, and it slid open, blinding light streaming down. The sun was still above us, but we were moving away from it. What had happened? Willy came to, as did Lee and Connor. Over the next few minutes we pieced it together.
It seems that our mission worked: Big Boy, humanity’s largest-ever cluster of H-bombs, injected its pinprick of directed energy into the solar rift, and jump-started a ball of surface fusion that sealed shut the gap, in a rapid chain reaction… everything Pablø had predicted and planned. But what about us?
“We’re surfing the shockwave”, Connor said. “All the residual heat in the rift was ejected out when it sealed, and it came out all at once, not like a mass coronal ejection, but like a bubble popping. And it’s pushing us back out.”
“Back out? To where?” I asked. “Where are we gonna end up?”
Connor looked up from his astrolabe and orbital charts. He stared at me blankly, mute.
“Where, Connor? If we’re not gonna burn up, that means we’re gonna die from radiation poisoning, slowly and painfully. And then we’ll just be floating around like a ghost ship, like the Flying Dutchman. Where are we drifting to?”
Connor snapped out of his reverie. “We’re going home. If my calculations are right, we’re on a collision course with Earth. We’ll burn up, but not today, not on the sun. We’ll burn up on re-entry, in a bit under 90 hours. On Sunday.”
New Big Endings is a collection of stories and poems about things that end, well or badly, comically or tragically, with a bang or with a whimper.
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