Premise: Nothing special to note, just another daily flight to Mars, Jupiter, or wherever in the universe one might travel these days. One can look out of the computerized screens, still called windows, and see beyond their panes, into the green forests and across the concrete ribbons spanning across and through them. Traffic was light, programmed to be that way, never too heavy, never too few as to create a raised eyebrow, a quickly inhaled breath of astonishment, or worse, outright panic by the observer. Such little things were known to cause havoc. It was due to their infrequency, a planned consistency that was now required by the stable minds of a stable world. But all was not to be on this flight.
There was nothing that could even be foreseen about it, it was way beyond even the imagining of most creative minds. The scope of disaster was so horrendous most people gasped, and died right there in place, not so much collapsing, but having their bodies relax in semi-vertical positions, then drifting off to clump together in the corners of various rooms, the pseudogravity having the very slightest variation, programmed to create the illusion of normalcy.
The window screen had been broken. Not just inoperable, but destroyed in place. A plastic covering was all that remained while the screen itself gathered in crumpled and sharp shards at the bottom. Only the attachment of the plastic covers on either side kept it from showering the floor or the ground beyond it.
And yes, there was ground beyond it. It was unexplainable, but it was there. The windows on either side of the broken pane didn’t show it. They kept playing the Flourmadian world, known to be so many millions of miles beyond Earth’s view, but travelled to regularly. It was impossible to understand for the single person not incapacitated by the horrific display.
Common reasons emerged first. Perhaps the broken screen was an illusion itself. There had been talk about creating excitement during these flights around the galaxy by visual trickery. Setting up the spaceship itself for minor catastrophes to stimulate interest in future flights would cause a risk that many people would enjoy. It would boost their self-worth, and depending upon how they reacted (since there would never be any real danger), it would elevate their stature in all those faces they already knew, and in those reading the newspaper (a misnomer), broadcasting their excitement filled adventure.
Miles stepped forward gingerly, placing his foot down with a single toe making contact first, they slowly rolling his weight forward and pressing the rest of it onto the floor of the spaceship. The gravity of this planet was similar to Earth, and since there was not a very long travel time between the two places, he had already adapted to it’s slight variation.
“Jesus!” He jumped, nearly sending himself to the ceiling as he pulled his foot upwards. A crackle had sounded just as he stepped, frightening him insensibly. He was after all, a highly thought of gamer, ready for nearly anything coming at him during the evolution of a game. As he calmed his adrenalin-rushed nerves, he smiled at himself, knowing that just recently he had survived one hundred and forty-two meteors coming straight for his fortress, some so small they had penetrated his observatory and he had stopped just inches from burying themselves into his face and body. Of course, that was just a game.
The tiny piece of screen LCD reflected the ceiling lights in several directions now that he had crushed it into tiny pieces. He also noted several pieces also lying with it, a haphazard collection of bits that mostly stayed right against the wall where they had fallen.
His hand rose and touched the clear plastic covering of the window. His sensitive fingertips knew it lacked the heat that would have been present had it still been functioning, if the LCD under it was still creating whatever illusion it had been programmed to project. He placed the palm of that hand flatly against it and still felt very little heat. He assumed that without the internal heat of a running screen beneath it, the plastic had assimilated the same temperature as the room.
It was also obvious that it was not a screen projecting a broken screen because of the visible bulge of materials hanging at the bottom of the window. The lightly fastened bottom of the plastic on either side of the now broken screen had given way to the weight and had come loose, allowing the bits to fall and tinkle as they broke against the floor. He easily ruled out that it was one of their manufactured disasters since it was obvious that one of their viewing screens had physically broken into small fragments. For this to happen, after so many millions of miles breaching the vast amounts of space on this spacecraft, would be totally unbelievable. Yet, it had happened to him.
He slid his face against the plastic, not to check the temperature of it, but to see if he could detect another layer of deception behind it. Having been fooled before, he suspected that perhaps yet another screen had been in place behind this one. He smiled at the cleverness of such a well-designed trick. In all of his gaming experiences, this double illusion was quite novel. Having your mind and eyes taking something for granted, until the trickery was revealed, was a very unused technique to fool the gamers.
For a few moments he stood still, realizing that such a trick had already occurred in real life, postulated and refined by the very makers of this galaxy-traversing ship. Of course it was a long time ago. In fact, it was so many eons ago that it was unimaginable to go back that far in space travelling. At that time, they were contemplating the small gap between Earth in it’s moon, a mere 250,000 miles or so.
He recalled looking through the history books. He was looking for some long ago forgotten references he could use in a new game, one that he was developing himself. He had been getting bored with everything he was seeing, the same old tricks and abused fantasies, causing the same old game plots. He wanted to create an experience that even he would be surprised when he finally got to the end of the game.
He ran upon the biggest hoax ever created by the primitive space engineers of their time. It had fooled millions, cost millions, and thankfully, caused the advancements of space faster than would ever have occurred otherwise. Shortly, the first trip to the moon had been no more than an extremely elaborate prank. There had been no landing, nor even a single person aboard the rocket that had blown them into space from Earth. Anything witnessed by multiple persons had been staged, paid for just as though it had cost highly for the research and construction of such rockets. Well, in fact, it did cost very highly, but not for the modification to a rocket to accept the three people, but to pacify all of the thousands of liars that had to go along with the hoax. It was a national priority and many had done their best for national pride. Some disappeared of course, unable to hold their tongues and opinions of perpetrating such a trick on their own patriotic citizens. It was just another cost to confine them until many years later when at last, the secret was out.
But the situation was hardly similar to today. The moon wasn’t even important any longer. Space Stations were located on every corner of the Earth, ready to produce starships as quickly as making a piece of toast for the morning’s breakfast. Materiel was continually running back and forth from asteroids, no longer bothering anyone with blast offs from Earth to supply vital minerals. In fact, this very flight was a departure from the old form of racketeering. From the relaxed cabin of today’s ships, one could just about catch a nap during the liftoff. There was some vibration of course, mostly from the release of the cradle that the ship was perched on prior to launch. After that, magnetically reversed plates on the bottom of the ships merely repelled everything attached to it, sending it into orbit, peacefully, and quietly.
There were many years that we wrestled with the old Star Drive. Nothing seemed to work, speed just couldn’t be attained without boomeranging around multiple planets, and then the sun itself. Sometimes it took years just to get headed in the right direction after spinning in between the planets and moons, and asteroids of this planetary system.
When the discovery was finally made, it was just in the nick of time. The cost of sending ships on one way voyages was disturbing national economies. Countries were forced to cooperate, and still there wasn’t enough money to compete with our alter ego, the Far Eastern Alliance. They had solved their hunger problem, allowing the masses of their population to work towards space development instead of trying to feed the millions of them, with poor food resources. Naturally, the European and American countries couldn’t allow themselves to be beaten once more.
With most countries on the brink of collapse economically, it was lifesaving luck that the secret to propulsion had been discovered. It was totally unexpected, and within a few years, ships were built that were capable of launching from land, elevating themselves into space, and traversing galaxies with the speed of a commercial on television.
Docks were built in the confines of desert and rough terrain, so as not to injure anyone when they landed again, silently. Plus, it was rumored that the new drive had a possibility of exploding. Isolation was necessary for the people left behind. No one knew just how big a path of destruction was likely, so they took the widest path they could when locating launch pads.
Even he was delving into history so old that he hadn’t been born yet. Millions of people had safely gone into unknown regions, returned, and spread the tales of exotic planets to all who were interested. The news media was even tired of hearing about it and said little. Their most expansive coverage was when a new landing site had been used on some unseen planet, in some distant galaxy, sometimes years distant, even with the anti-magnetic inertia drive.
He looked at the inner walls surrounding him, feeling safe that this particular ship had gone that way many years ago already. It gave him comfort that it had gone for years on a single trip, without a single death, or getting lost in one direction or the other.
One thing did bother him though, the food replicators. While he could accept the occasional stop on an asteroid for minerals to supply them, he had never read any story about this every happening. As far as he recalled, all flights ever leaving Earth, went straight to the destination and back. It was mostly for the population of travelers, not wanting to disturb them with such trivial necessities. But he had never found anything describing the ability of one of them as capable of lasting for years with a hundred or so people wanting to eat from it.
His stomach turned slightly as he considered other bodily functions that were necessary, whether you were Earthbound, or sailing through the universe. He was sickened at the idea that space was becoming man’s newest garbage and septic system.
The air lock was very tightly sealed from the other side prior to launch. This was once again the Space Agency looking out for its passengers. In all the years of travelling, no one had thought to produce an atmosphere tester capable of detecting just what sort of atmosphere was outside of the spaceship. It followed that there was no reason to ever leave the ship, and so they were sealed. There were also plenty of windows to observe whatever might be outside, as he had been discovering.
The crystals were so clear and set into the window openings so precisely that photography was producing quite stunning exhibits each time from a newly opened land surface. It was as though science was capable of determining the most special landscapes prior to ever having been there. Not even ordinary artists, with a thousand colors and brushes could paint such things.
Not only that, but the space agency processed all of the film for free, their vast experience with photography exceeding anyone else’s anywhere on Earth. Even when some travelers were denied their prints at first, they always got them back before they forgot just what pictures they had taken. With the little bit of cropping the Agency did to ‘clean them up’, you would have sworn that you had been standing right on the surface outside of the ship. The only real complaint was this delay, and although they seemed to cause this more often than not, the photos produced were always spectacular to the point of stunning.
But he wasn’t going to be taking pictures through this window. Somehow the programming had a sort of reversion programming built into it. Quicker than the eye could tell, especially those that still floated near the ceiling, the view was changed to exactly that of the view prior to our launching. He even remembered watching a particular pine as it drifted slowly out of view as they rose. He remembered counting the reddish branches that were dying for some unknown reason. But near the top every branch was green and healthy, right up until he was looking directly down at it, a circle of dark green that quickly shrunk and eventually disappeared as the rest of Earth had.
The coincidence began irritating his brain. He wanted to bust his fist through the phony plastic and yell at the technicians below who were perpetrating this hoax. Then he was going to strangle the man who had taken nearly all of his money, while grinning with a huge white row of teeth under his balloon nose. After that, if he could escape from the pseudo-launch site, he would go to straight to the media and expose the mass hypnosis done to masses of people.
He kicked at the clear plastic, hoping to dislodge it before anyone else awoke so that he could proclaim his discovery. It bent outward until pieces of screen under it became a pile at his feet. It was draining out of the crack at the bottom with each outward bending of the plastic. But it would not crack or split, or even come separated from the wall.
As he rested from this great effort, he thought that he should be standing outside, facing the ship and the people inside. He had a taunt ready, his thumb against his nose, his hand spread out and the fingers waving back and forth vertically to mock their belief in the lies readily accepted by the management and the government. Better still, he decided to stand there with his hands on his hips, legs spread wide in a steady stance, with a big grin mounted on his face. He only had to determine just how far to be standing from the window. He wanted to be recognized of course.
He kicked at the pane several more times, five or six revolutions with a break in between them. His light weight shoes, made especially for space travelling, wouldn’t even leave a smudge on the plastic. One barefooted effort, painful and quickly rejected, had left the only scar on the clear material. But even as he panted from the effort, a trickle of oily beads ran down the inner surface, obliterating the greasy smear for a while, then it disappeared at the bottom along with his footprint.
With his nose right up against the wall next to the window, he tried to see where it had gone, but it was not possible. Somehow it had either absorbed into the material in had ran over, or it just evaporated. He expected it to drip from the bottom edge of it, but it didn’t seem to get that far. His eye was so close to it that his nose was pressing against the wall almost painfully, yet all he got was a blurry vision while his eyes tried hard to focus on it.
His anger peaked quickly, but only for a short time. He hit it with his hand now, not expecting to do it any damage. His feet had been useless after all. Then he withdrew his face and gasped quickly. A single instance of burning singed his nostrils and he threw himself backwards. Landing on the floor, he remembered looking up at the others feet as they were slowly descending towards him. It was the last thing his eyes saw.
As they looked down at him, they surmised that he had been a victim of shock. Just as they had passed out and drifted towards the ceiling, he had collapsed and sunk to the floor. In horror some of them began floating upwards again, this new shock shrinking their awareness as they passed out once more. Not as dangerous as a breaking screen in a hostile environment, a person’s death was not a new experience to some of them.
They knelt around him, the most medically trained of them placing fingers at his throat and searching for a pulse to count. They found no such beating, and pronounced him dead. It was clear to them that he had died due to a failure to detect the difference between reality, a computer program meant to scare them, and rumors long perpetrated about the falsity of the space program. He had died believing that the screen had actually been broken, and they had never left Earth at all.
They were saddened, but it was to be short lived. His violent efforts to open a window that was thoroughly sealed, with multiple screens and mechanics within it, had been fruitful at last. As his kicks had dislodged it to a great extent, his mere fist had allowed a very tiny, a very minor trickle of gas from outside into the spaceship. It had burned his nose as he was closest to it at the time. Eventually it would spread throughout the ship and it would never return. It was a hallmark in space history, albeit a sad one, the first ship not to return after a galactic adventure.