Sunday, July 7, 2013

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

I didn't feel much like a test pilot, I can tell you that much. Maisie told me I looked heroic. I was wearing my static shedding lab coat, Sid's bicycle helmet, and we were kind of counting on my glasses to be as shatterproof as Cheap Spectacles claimed they were. I had tied a couple of elastics together to help hold them in place. Yes, I know, in hindsight it must seem ridiculous, but there was no way we were going to pass up this opportunity to send the first human being to another star, and back, and do it all in time for dinner.

The capsule sat in the middle of our laboratory, with Professor Srinivan's office chair bolted in front of the controls. Well, the controls consisted of the discharge button for the capacitor bank, and a keyboard to run the camera controls. Since my life was riding on this, I'd double checked the calculations. The capacitors had enough power to do the trip twice over, so on that account I was feeling confident. If step one worked, then step two also would work.

I gave my partners in crime a final look around, a thumbs up, and climbed into the capsule through the unbolted hatch. We had put a couple of air tanks inside, with enough air to last me four hours. I listened as Sid bolted the last panel in place. Maisie waved at me through one of the scratched Lexan windows. Then Sid knocked three times, the signal we'd agreed on.

I hit the kitchen timer we had taped next to the discharge button. At one minute, I hit the discharge button the first time.

It was anticlimactic. It was dark out of most of the Lexan panels. There was a bright red light shining in through one of them. It made using the keyboard very difficult. I heard the servos buzz in the silent capsule, though, so I figured the camera was doing its programmed turn. After a few seconds the buzzing stopped. I squinted at the kitchen timer. Not quite two minutes. I poked the button again for the return trip.

And nothing happened.

The red light outside remained unmoved.

The hell of it was, this thing was supposed to work. I had done the math dozens of times.

And yet I didn't even smell so much as a hint of burned insulation.

I groped at the button. My fingers followed the wire across the board to which it was taped. That's when I realized the wires were loose! I quickly found the heavily insulated plug on the end. By touch I managed to find the socket, plugged in the button, and returned to Professor Srinivan's chair. After a moment's hesitation, I punched the button again. Something seemed different this time.

And then the capsule was falling.

I grabbed the arms of my chair. I was falling! The falling didn't stop. I think I must have started screaming about then. At least I have a dim memory of someone screaming, and there wasn't anyone else.

Exhausted, I found myself on the capsule floor, hugging the chair's seat with my arms, my legs wrapped around the chair's base. I was still falling, but it had become hard to breath. I had to punch the button again before the air in the capsule became unbreathable. With effort, I unclenched my arms and legs and maneuvered around the chair. Something smelled bad. For a short moment the thought of facing my colleagues like this overwhelmed everything else.

But somehow the thought of them brought back my sanity. I remembered the experiment. Of course I'd be weightless. I didn't know what had happened earlier, but it couldn't have been a trip to Proxima Centauri. We'd figure it out later, but in the back of my mind I suspected Sid of playing a practical joke. With some effort I reached for the keyboard. It was floating above the board on which it had been sitting. I had to hold it in my lap to be able to type on it at all. After entering the camera command again, I listened for the servo. The sound seemed the same as before. If I assumed that the first time I had never left the lab, then this time the capsule was falling through space near Proxima Centauri, in a vacuum. Sound transmission from the servos would be strictly through the walls of the capsule.

The light seemed to be as bad as the first time. I squinted at the kitchen timer. It had rolled up to its maximum two hours, after which it had stopped increasing the count. I'd been out here for at least two hours. I had no idea how much time I had left. I felt wrung out, panting as if I'd finished a long run.

Once the servo stopped I let the keyboard float out of the way and reached for the button a third time.

The chair slammed into me, and the keyboard clattered to the floor. The return of gravity was the first thing I noticed. Then the lights from the laboratory. I could hear voices shouting, then started laughing when I heard Sid knocking on the capsule. I reached over and knocked back. I stank, I was bruised, and I wasn't out of the capsule, yet. But I had been to Proxima Centauri.

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