FIRST PORTAL

first portal.jpg

- I -

 

“Captain Rachel, there is something springing up on my radar,” a cheerful voice called over the intercom.

Rachel looked up from the screen in front of her. She was dressed in a white-colored bodysuit that covered her from neck to ankles, she had a pair of black gloves on, a black utility belt, and a pair of black boots. On one of her shoulders was the American flag, and the bold letters NASA.

It had been eleven years since she had first donned the much admired, and coveted uniform, and she still felt the pride of wearing it. As a child, she had always imagined wearing a uniform with the flag of her country stitched on it. She didn’t necessarily think she would become an astronaut; she could have been a navy, air force, or marine personnel. The most important thing was for her to become a professional who denoted action, and patriotism.

Rachel loved her job—there was no doubt about that, otherwise she would not have agreed to an assignment that would keep her away from her husband, and little daughter for years. She knew that she was, in many ways, blessed to have been given the opportunity to create history. Not everyone wanted to take that route, but she did.

She wasn’t the only one striving for glory. There were others too, both men, and women. Some of them had the ambition, and the drive, but didn’t have the ability. Some had both, but didn’t get the opportunity. Rachel, and her crew were the lucky ones, who had both the drive, and the capability of becoming deep-space pioneers, and got picked up for this important mission. It was something she never forgot, nor did she let her crew forget it. Every time Rachel felt low, or missed her family back on earth, she reminded herself that she was the captain of a spaceship that would, in all probability, change the way mankind lived their lives.

Rachel was acutely conscious that in getting command of the ship, she had shattered the proverbial glass ceiling that kept deserving women from getting to the top of their game.

She stood up from her seat in the captain’s dock, and gracefully walked over to the navigation station, a trait of femininity she had retained despite the masculine job as spaceship commander.

The navigation team comprised of two members, who sat in a semi-circular formation with an array of huge screens, and monitors around them. Unlike her dock, elevated, and surrounded by windows for a clear view to the star-filled outer space, there was no window in the navigation room. Rachel knew that the design of her spacecraft was deliberate. NASA knew that for a navigator to function properly, they needed to work solely with their radar, and navigational instruments, not with what they could physically see outside.

In any case, Rachael preferred to be in the navigation room—it gave her a sense of control, surrounded by equipment that told her where exactly they were, and where they were headed. That was something she didn’t feel in the dock, where the vastness of space tended to be very overwhelming. The first flush of excitement at a clear view of open space quickly turned monotonous for her.

She still smiled inwardly, remembering how excited she had been when their spaceship had first reached open space, and the view in front of her had mesmerized her—immense darkness interspersed with lights from billions of stars, and galaxies.

She remembered the narration at the beginning of the popular TV series Star Trek she used to watch as a child with her grandfather— ‘Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life, and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before’.

The nature of their mission made this iconic statement particularly poignant, and she had put a printout of this timeless message above her bunk bed. She ran the spaceship the way she ran her own home. It was important that every crew member felt comfortable in their own space, so she ensured they had neat, and clutter-free living quarters. She also had people’s food preferences uploaded to the kitchen computer so that everybody’s favorite food made it to the menu at least once a week.

Being a brilliant student all her academic life, and a super-achiever at work, she performed her role as a captain extremely well, with the onboard computer always handing her out five golden stars for performance on all counts. This was unprecedented, as no other spaceship captain man, or woman, had ever received more than four, and a half stars.

“Yes, Malcolm,” Captain Rachel said as she came into the windowless room. “What is it that has caught your attention?”

Malcolm was the only male navigator on the team. He, and his female companion wore bodysuits similar to Rachel’s, all white, and full bodied, with black gloves, belt, and boots. He pointed at his monitor. “It was just a single blip few minutes ago. I didn’t want to pay particular attention to it, but now it’s been beeping more frequently, at a pace of two bleeps per second.”

“Let me have a look.”

Captain Rachel looked into his monitor. She could see the vast array of stars, all denoted with white spots of various sizes. There was a small green triangle that represented her ship. Close to the right edge of Malcolm’s screen was a blue dot.

Unlike the other spots, and dots which were stationary, and unblinking, this particular blue dot was blinking, and it seemed to be moving. Considering that space travel had become so high-tech, it was remarkable how radar became an effective way to track distant objects.

There was no way that one could use GPS, as there were not enough manmade communication satellites to account for limitless space. This was nigh impossible, so radar technology, which had proved its worth since the Second World War of the distant twentieth century, was the most dependable tool for navigation in deep space. The way bats, and whales use sonar to detect distant objects.

“Two bleeps per second?”

“Yes Captain, and it seems to be increasing in intensity.”

“That means it is traveling faster than us. Claire, calculate the distance between us.”

“Yes, Captain. We are forty thousand miles away from it.”

“If we consider our current speed, as well as the distance between us, and that celestial body, we should be there in two hours.”

“Are we going to head for it Captain?”

“Of course we are Claire. Have you forgotten the purpose of our mission?”

“No, Captain. I have not, but I thought it would be more appropriate to send a drone there to do an initial recon before we go on a full-scale review.”

A space drone was nothing like the gently hovering contraption used by everyone’s uncle on earth. This was a miniature spacecraft powered by solar energy, and was capable of flying as fast as the mother ship itself.

“Later Claire, later. Once we reach its vicinity, we will send a drone. Malcolm, change our course for that celestial body, and get ready for possible landing,”

“Yes, Captain,” Malcolm began to punch some keys on his keyboard. “Do you think this is it, Captain?”

“Who knows? Hopefully, it’d be something worth reporting. I am tired of having to answer back to NASA Central Command’s continuous queries with nothing.”

 I desperately hope it is. Apart from the ceaseless pressure of living up to NASA’s expectations, how long can we bounce around in deep space? There has to be fruition. She thought to herself.

The biggest impediment to this kind of deep space exploration was the prohibitive cost, which ran into billions of dollars of American taxpayers’ money.

Like the Spanish voyagers of yore who sailed across the vast Pacific Ocean to the new land of the Americas in search of gold, and other riches, Rachel, and her team had been sent out far into deep space to see if they could find something of immense value, but how long could they search before the patience, and more importantly, the resources of people back home got exhausted?

“Queries?” Claire asked.

“Yes, Claire, queries. NASA is just too impatient to hear something positive from our mission.”

“Can you blame them, Captain?” Malcolm asked. “The race for dominance of space technology, and everything related to it was at breakneck speed before we departed Earth. Not to mention that NASA has to show some return on the investment they made back then.”

“But that was back in 3025. Now we are in 3028. Does NASA think we would have made any significant discoveries in just a little over three years?”

“Let’s hope we discover something worth reporting this time, Captain,” Malcolm said.

Rachel nodded, looking at the blinking blue dot on Malcolm’s screen. “Yes, let us hope so. Maybe that would finally give NASA something to work with. After all, this whole thing about exploring uncharted space is a leap of faith. Something like what Columbus did when he sailed for the west farther than any man had done. Those were uncharted waters for him, and from what people had told him, he should’ve fallen off the edge of the earth. Yet he pressed ahead, as man lives by hope, so shall we.”

Malcolm shrugged. “Well, let’s look at it this way; if we don’t succeed, maybe it would give them a reason to consider asking us to come back home.”

“You mean back to Earth?”

“Yes Captain, back to Earth.”

“Are you already tired of being away from earth?”

“I guess looking at monitors, and not seeing anything outside for so long, isn’t much of a pleasure anymore. Nothing like the feeling of terra firma under my feet once again.”

“Yes, Captain, I agree with Malcolm. This is worse than working on some dreary monotonous job. Navigation duty is really demoralizing, and terrible. Makes me want to cry sometimes.”

“But it’s been only three years,” Rachel pointed out in distress. “Are you saying you wouldn’t consider an assignment that requires five years of duty posting?”

“Five years of what? Would it be on a mission that has a clear focus, and direction? Or one like ours, which clearly doesn’t seem to have one?” Claire asked.

“That’s where you are both wrong.” Rachel paused, and pointed at the blue dot. “You see that there? That’s what our mission is targeted at, exploring unidentifiable celestial bodies in outer space.”

“Well, that’s very well,” Malcolm replied. “If you ask me, this quest is like searching for a needle in a haystack.”

“We are making some progress. Mull over that folks, and be happy.” Rachel said as she stepped out of the navigation room, Rachel sighed briefly. She couldn’t blame Malcolm, or Claire for their negative thoughts, and feelings.

But three years is not a very long time, especially for astronauts like them, who had been commissioned, and assigned by NASA to embark on such a mission into outer space.

Their workday was so busy, with having to conduct daily experiments in the onboard lab, sending lengthy reports to NASA, eating, exercising, going on spacewalks to carry out routine inspections of the outer body of the ship, and so on. Time just went by in a blur.

Perhaps by design, astronauts on long voyages were given a grueling schedule, or they would go mad contemplating the isolation space offers.

It was like a prison sentence, and just like prisoners were kept busy to keep them in the right frame of mind, space travelers too had to be kept busy.

Of course, this serves the joint purpose of keeping space travelers mentally fit, and getting a lot of vital scientific research carried out by staff who are literally at your disposal round the clock.

Real-life space travel is nothing as exciting as they show it in the movies. Though physically fit, most space crew hardly look like fashion models, like the ones they show in sci-fi movies, and countless TV shows.

Everything was pretty staid and dull, if you discounted the fact that they were hurtling through deep space, which was awesome.

Their destination was not determined before their launch because of the simple fact that it was going to be a discovery-based mission.

“A Discovery-based mission!” Rachel repeated as she recalled the briefing at NASA that day.

 

***

 

“Yes, Captain Rachel,” the senior director had replied to her. They were both seated in a conference room with a long table, and several leather chairs around it. Curiously, they were the only two present in the large room.

The senior director, Mr. Smith, a grey-haired man in a black suit, and smoking a cigar, had pointed at the file in her hand. “Even though you would have enough time to digest the summary, and details of this mission, it would be better that you hear it from me. Your mission will be considered significant only if you make a worthwhile discovery.”

Rachel had frowned, and glanced at the file that he had handed over to her. “But what are we going to discover out there, sir?”

“Something of significance.”

“Sir, you don’t seem to be certain of what my team, and I are going out there for.”

“You are very perceptive, Captain. You always have been, that is why NASA is counting on you and your team to be as perceptive as possible in searching, and reporting back to us on any significant finds you might make out there.”

“Thank you for your confidence in me, and my team, sir. We will do our best.”

“I know you will Captain. The United States of America counts on you.”

 

***

 

“The United States of America counts on you,” Rachel repeated to herself as she walked towards her station. Sometimes she had her moments of doubt, and wondered if she was being foolhardy to imagine that the frail human being she was, against the limitless dark space, would make momentous discoveries.

About the United States counting on her, she recalled somebody once saying, ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’. Who was the scoundrel here? The director, or she herself for justifying their rash, and foolish decision to head out to open space in pursuit of some high-sounding, and probably unachievable objective?

She thought of what the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami had said about the vastness of the ocean, and felt that it applied to space as well, but much magnified. ‘The ocean was one of the greatest things he had ever seen in his life—bigger, and deeper than anything he had imagined. It changed its color, shape, and expression according to time, place, and weather. It aroused a deep sadness in his heart, and at the same time it brought his heart peace, and comfort’.

Once she had settled into her seat, she checked the monitor in front of her. There were no new messages. She then glanced outside through the window of the spacecraft. Again the vastness of the universe stumped her momentarily, like every time she peeped out to look at space.

She never could get her head around the fact that here she was, part of the puny human race, trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe, when their significance in the overall scheme of things was infinitesimally small. Yet who could deny that mankind had made vast progress from its caveman origins?

The stars that filled the vast blackness were bright, and glowing, like white bulbs hanging off a very low ceiling. It was almost as if she could reach out, and touch them, except that they were million miles away. What was it about stars that fascinated mankind from the earliest of times?

She caught sight of the strange celestial body. It was indeed peculiar in appearance, whereas the other stars around were glowing steadily in a white color that was either bright, or dull, depending on how far away they were from the ship, this particular celestial body was bright yellow in color. And apart from the strange color, it was blinking continuously, without emitting any heat.

Rachel checked her dashboard, and picked up her intercom’s mouthpiece. “Malcolm, how much more time do we have before we get to its vicinity?”

“Roughly a minute, and nineteen seconds, Captain,” Malcolm replied.

“Okay, be on stand-by,” Rachel ordered.

“Yes, Captain.”

Rachel glanced at the windscreen in front of her. The celestial body now looked bigger. Her ship was rapidly advancing towards it.

She punched some buttons on her keypad, and a bold inscription appeared on her screen—EXTERNAL LIVE VIDEO CAM RECORDING ACTIVATED.

She typed some more, and another inscription appeared—

SYNTHESIS AND ANALYTICAL PROGRAMS ACTIVATED.

SPECIFY THE OBJECT OF ANALYSIS.

Rachel punched a response on the keyboard—

A YELLOW CELESTIAL BODY WHICH OUR SHIP IS APPROACHING.

The monitor paused.

Rachel sank deeper into her seat as she watched computations scroll down the screen. When it became obvious that the analysis was taking up much more time than she had initially expected, she glanced outside, and immediately gasped.

All the time she had been engrossed with her monitor, Rachel had not noticed that her ship had already gotten very close to the celestial body, and now was just a few miles away. The view was truly breathtaking.

Instinctively, Rachel reached for her intercom. “All crew members, report to the bridge. Come on, quickly. You guys have to see this.”

As she dropped the intercom on her desk, Rachel stood up, and gazed at the strange sight before her. She was barely conscious of her crew gathering around her to witness the spectacle view.

Right in front of them was a huge, thick circle of hydrogen, and helium, glittering continuously. From their spacecraft, it seemed as if an artist had used a yellow marker to draw a very thick circle across a black canvas.

The circle was large enough for their spaceship to glide through, however the center was filled with complete darkness even through there were nearby stars glowing in the distance.

“What could this be?” Malcolm asked.

Rachel glanced at her monitor. It had finished its analysis of the strange celestial body. The response on her monitor was bold, and concise—UNKNOWN.

Rachel frowned. “Unknown?”

The word had a very ominous ring to it. Rachel hoped that her crew wouldn’t notice her nervousness, only her clam, and composed self.

It was Malcolm who spoke, “Unknown?”

“That’s what our systems are saying.”

“But our navigational systems!” Malcolm exclaimed.

“What is wrong with the navigational systems?” Rachel asked.

“It showed up as a star on our navigational systems.”

“I know Malcolm, but that was just for navigation, not analysis. A lot of these things which we think are stars are not really stars. Many could be planets, asteroids, or even moons. A lot of them do not even generate their own light, but simply reflect the lights of others. So, using navigational systems to draw up conclusions about any planetary body would be very erroneous.”

“So, what do we do now, Captain?” Claire asked.

Rachel looked at the glittering yellow circle in front of them. “There’s nothing in the center. Only darkness, as if it is some sort of void.”

“It appears as if light is not getting into, or coming out of it,” Malcolm added.

“Probably it could be just dense, or empty,” Claire added.

“Dense, or empty?” Malcolm asked.

Claire nodded. “I mean, the center of the circle. Since we cannot see anything inside it, could it be empty, devoid of anything solid?”

“You mean, there could be some form of solid matter within the circle?” Rachel asked. “That is a good hypothesis. I would want to imagine that there should be some sort of mass since we cannot see anything in it. It just seems to be like a thick blanket, blocking out everything around, and beyond it.”

“C-c-could this be a black hole?” asked Claire nervously.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Malcom scoffed, clearly scared at being anywhere near a black hole. “If it had been one, we would have already been sucked into it!”

“I agree.” Racheal nodded. “Don’t let your imagination get the better of you. It is not a black hole, or a star because there is no heat emitting from it,” Rachel said, more gently than Malcolm, but equally firmly. The last thing she needed on the ship was a crew member having a panic attack.

“What do we do now, Captain?”

Rachel smiled at Malcolm. “I heard Claire ask a similar question a short while ago. Frankly, I think we have gotten too far into space to have cold feet. I think we should observe it closely, find out all we can about it, then report back to NASA.”

“So, we head towards it?” Malcolm asked.

“You should return to your stations, and be on alert. We must be ready to go into it any moment now.”

Rachel might have put on a brave façade for the sake of her crew, but inside she was tormented. Would they survive their journey into the strange, glowing celestial body?

Was she right in jeopardizing her own life, as well as her crew members’? She had a nine-year-old daughter, and a husband to think about. How could they manage their lives without her?

She didn’t really blame NASA for her moral predicament. She, and the other crew members had signed up for this mission voluntarily. Yet, the way NASA glamourized space travel had influenced many bright, and smart people, usually the best in their fields.

The rewards, too, were stupendous, and whoever finally made the cut was really a special kind of person, capable of taking rational decisions.

Nevertheless, Rachel often wondered, what compelled man to do things; nature didn’t equip him for. Flying, traveling underwater, and now space travel. Why was it only humans who thought of doing extra? Why would a chimpanzee never wonder why he couldn’t soar in the skies, or why didn’t an eagle imagine that it should dive deep in the ocean like a whale?

 

- II -

 

The crew members returned to their stations as Rachel sat down on her seat. “Claire, prep a drone for immediate launch.”

“Yes, Captain, prepping one drone for immediate launch.”

“Ensure that video, audio, and analytical systems are powered up. Ensure they are synced with our spacecraft’s systems through the live feed. I don’t want us to simply record everything the drone sees. I want us to feel as if we are physically there on the drone.”

“I understand, Captain.”

In no time, a drone was launched. From her captain’s dock, Rachel could see it head for the unknown celestial body. Designed in the shape of two soccer balls held together by a thick metallic pipe, the drone sped quickly.

It didn’t fly in smooth motion like a regular spacecraft, but rather the chaotic way an insect flies, even though there was nothing chaotic about its precision. Like an insect homes in on its target, and reaches there despite its seemingly erratic flight path, this drone too was moving in a very definite direction on a very definite mission.

Its ability to be on different trajectories every now, and then allowed it to capture images from the maximum number of angles, which were then collated in a 360 degree streaming view to the mother ship.

From her monitor, she could see two views, the first being the drone approaching the unknown celestial body, captured by the external cameras on their spacecraft. The second image was from within the drone as it approached it.

This image was transmitted from the cameras on board the drone. The images being displayed on Rachel’s monitor were clear, and crisp, as if whoever was watching the live feed was actually onboard the drone, holding onto it for dear life as it hurtled here, and there.

Since the cameras had a built-in stabilizer, the pictures didn’t appear jerky in any way. Consequently, it offered a first-person view to whoever saw the feed.

As the drone began to circle the perimeter of the unknown celestial body, Rachel’s intercom came alive. It was Claire. “Captain, are you seeing the feedback from the drone?”

“Yes, they are clear, and unbelievably amazing.”

“Captain, this celestial body seems to be just one-dimensional,” Claire said.

“One-dimensional?” Rachel repeated. She put down her intercom mouthpiece, and assessed the readings on one of her monitors. She then shook her head, and looked up at the window. “This is unbelievable. There is no depth, or thickness at all. How can this be possible?”

“It’s just a glowing circle in the middle of space,” Malcolm’s voice carried awe. “No depth, no width, just a circle in space, glowing like some neon lights, with nothing inside.”

“We can’t be too sure that it is just empty within,” Rachel pointed out. “We would have arrived at that conclusion if we had seen something through it, but that is not the case. Let us send the drone into its center.”

“All right,” Claire replied. “I am changing the drone’s direction to the center.”

Rachel watched different monitors as their drone changed course, and began to descend to the center of the circle. In the time it took to pierce the center of the so-called uni-dimensional circle, she must have lived a lifetime. What would it find there? Was Claire right? Were they at the edge of a cosmic abyss—a black hole?

As the drone began to vanish into the circle, her eyes caught sight of the timers on the monitor. There were two of them, one gave the time since the departure of the drone as per their ship’s systems, while the other displayed the time since the departure of the drone as registered by the drone’s system.

Before the drone eventually vanished, Rachel noted the two times being displayed.

Spaceship Timer: 01:07:15

Drone Timer: 01:07:15

When Rachel took her eyes off the timers, she saw that the drone had disappeared from view.

“The drone has gone in, Captain.”

“Yes, I can see that from the visuals on my monitor, Claire,” Rachel replied, her eyes darting at the second monitor. On it, she could see what was ahead of the drone as it raced through the darkness.

“Captain,” Malcom called over the intercom. “Are you seeing these visuals from inside the celestial body?”

Rachel’s focus on the screen deepened. “Yes, this celestial body might appear to be one-dimensional from the outside, but it clearly has some depth.”

“Not just depth, Captain,” Claire added. “Look at the surroundings. What kind of visuals are those?”

Rachel shook her head, and stood up from her seat as she gazed in awe. All around the drone were myriad of colours, flashing, and glittering like flash bulbs. Rachel could identify different shades of colours, flashing in random without any defined pattern.

“The lights seem to be plastered all over a rough-edged wall,” Malcolm said.

“Or a tunnel,” Claire volunteered.

“A tunnel?” Malcolm asked.

“Yes, it could be a tunnel of some sort,” Claire emphasized. “Can’t you see? The drone is moving quite fast, and yet it is still diving deeper, and deeper.”

“As if it is falling, or diving into what looks like some sort of well,” Rachel said.

“Yes,” Claire agreed. “A tunnel, or a well, and considering the amount of time that has transpired since the drone went inside, I would say that it is quite deep.”

As soon as Rachel glanced at the timers on the monitor, she gasped so loudly that her crew members could hear her over the intercom.

“Captain,” Malcolm called, his voice concerned. “What is it?”

“The time,” Rachel replied, her voice trembling a little.

“What time?” Malcolm puzzled.

“The timers,” Rachel said softly, still not believing what she was seeing on her monitor. “Check the timers.”

“What timers, Captain?” Claire asked.

“The timers for the drone, for goodness’ sake.” Rachel’s voice jumped in sudden agitation.

Both Malcolm and Claire looked at the times, confusion was written all over their faces.

Spaceship Timer: 01:22:45

Drone Timer: 06:44:27

There was a momentary silence as the crew realized what Rachel had observed.

“But that is impossible,” Malcolm eventually said, his voice hoarse. “I don’t understand.”

“FTL!” Claire announced.

“What?” Malcolm asked.

“It’s FTL,” Claire repeated. “The drone must be traveling faster than light in that tunnel.”

“What? How can that be?” Malcolm asked. “You mean the is a time travel tube?”

“No, not a time travel tube,” Rachel said. “It is a wormhole.”

“This is unbelievable!” Claire said. “I thought it was just a theory. We were taught that most wormholes would be microscopic in size, or even if they are larger, they would be unstable, and prone to collapse.”

“Well, we thought wrong,” Rachel said. “Look at what we are seeing now.”

Everyone looked at their screens, and gasped again.

There were no more flashing colors around the drone. Instead, there was now a clear blue sky above it. The drone flew further before passing over a vast landscape of sand, and blue waters.

Rachel glanced at the timers again.

Spaceship Timer: 01:57:33

Drone Timer: 18:31:17

Rachel shook her head. “Are you guys seeing this?”

“Unbelievable scenery,” Malcolm said.

“No, not the scenery. Check the timers again,” Rachel said.

“This is crazy!” Malcolm exclaimed.

“No, it is not crazy,” Rachel said. “It is time travel.”

“Time travel?”

“Yes, Claire. Believe it, or not, I think we have discovered a wormhole through which we can travel through time. What you are seeing now is probably the future.”

“Unbelievable,” Malcolm gushed. “Captain, it’s unbelievable.”

Rachel spoke softly, “Why unbelievable, Malcolm? Seeing is believing, isn’t it?”

They all watched the drone fly over lush green vegetation, and clear blue waters.

“Claire, engage our engines, and change our course of navigation immediately.”

“Okay, Captain. What direction do I point the ship to?”

“Into the circle, of course.”

“Into the circle?” Claire repeated, surprised.

“Yes, we are going into the circle. We must experience this wormhole firsthand.”

“Firsthand?”

“Yes indeed, Malcolm. We didn’t come this far only to report back to NASA what the drone has given us. We must see things for ourselves as well. Check, and make sure that all our energy thrusters, and stabilizers are ready to absorb any undue increase in external pressure that could arise from our travelling FTL.”

“Captain, all thrusters, and stabilizers are powered up, and ready to absorb any pressure,” Malcolm replied after checking his monitors.

“Okay, then. Claire, direct our ship into the circle.”

“Yes, Captain, ship directed into the circle.”

Their spaceship changed direction. As it raced towards the wormhole, Rachel checked her monitor. She picked up the intercom. “All crew should ensure all audio, and visual recordings are in perfect condition. We must document every proof of this expedition.”

“Yes, Captain,” Malcolm replied. “All recording systems are up, and running with100 percent efficiency.”

And then their ship sped into the circle.

Inside, they zoomed through the same, familiar tunnel of multiple flashing, and blinking colours. Rachel recalled that when the drone had been relaying the images back to their ship, the pictures had been amazing. Now, as she looked at both sides of the tunnel through the glass window of their ship, the vistas up close were even more breathtaking.

Then their ship suddenly burst through, and emerged over the vivid forest. The very familiar earth-like terrain caused them all to feel involuntary waves of relief, even though they all tried to maintain a stoic, and professional demeanor, but the darkness of space was not what human lives could consider its natural home forever, and being in familiar, earth-like surroundings made them all very emotional.

“I am s-sorry,” Rachel blurted out to no one in particular.

“We are out of the tunnel already?” Malcolm gasped.

“It appears so,” Rachel replied, glancing back at the other end of the tunnel from where they had just come out. “I hope you didn’t get too carried away by the tunnel’s splendor to forget to get the exact coordinates of that exit.”

“I got it, Captain,” Malcolm replied. “And isn’t it strange? The exit just looks like a big cloud in the sky.”

Rachel glanced at the monitor in front of her, and nodded. “Interesting. The entrance of the wormhole is a yellow circle while its exit is carefully disguised as a cloud.”

“What is this place?” Claire asked with a child-like wonder.

Rachel looked at their surroundings. There were huge trees which had thick, and lush leaves on them. In addition, the grass was green, yellow, and brown, with very succulent stems. The place was like earth, yet, not quite like it.

All the same, there was nothing like being in a world which was more, or less your natural environment. The spaceship sensor had determined that the air outside was identical to that of Earth.

Rachel ordered the onboard computer to switch to the natural breathing mode, and immediately, the outside air rushed into the spaceship, carrying the smell of vegetation, and moisture with it. The crew suddenly felt a wave of nostalgia sweep over them. They now fully realized what they had been missing, and secretly craving for in the past three years.

After a while, an indicator began to beep on her console. Then a message stream became audible on their spacecraft’s systems—“Citizens of Old Earth, stop your ship at its present location. Do not proceed any further.”

“Claire, stop the ship.”

“Yes, Captain.” Claire pressed some controls, and their ship came to a halt in mid-air.

The message stream came on again—“Thank you for complying with our directives, citizens of Old Earth. A team of our Immigration Panel will be coming aboard your ship in three seconds. Please accord them all the necessary cooperation. Thank you.”

“Everyone calm down. I am sure all they want is to verify our identity, and intentions for being here.”

“Affirmative, Captain,” a voice said. “That is why we are here.”

Rachel was shocked, and jumped. The voice had sounded so close to her that she turned, and looked around. “Who said that?”

“I did,” the voice replied.

But Rachel could not see anyone. “Who is there?” she asked, searching around her dock.

“We informed you of our arrival in three seconds,” the voice replied.

Rachel shook her head, and glanced around, confused. “I am sorry, but I cannot see who I am talking to.”

“I see,” the voice said. “No wonder you have been acting weird. We forgot that you are from Old Earth, which means your vision, and eyesight are still primitive. I apologize. Let me adjust my molecular structure to suit the capacity of your eyes’ lenses.”

Rachel was still trying to process everything she just heard when right before her, an image appeared, then another, and another, until there were four people standing before her. They all had human form, but their eyes were covered with very dark spectacles.

They each wore purple robes with colorful embroidery. She could see from the anatomy of their bodies that three of them were women, while only one of them was a man. Their skin was white in complexion, and very smooth. They were looking at her with their arms folded across their chests.

Rachel felt that, unlike Columbus, who had encountered people technologically behind the Europeans, she knew that she was outclassed here.

“Who are you?” Rachel asked.

“We are employees of the Immigration Panel, Captain Rachel,” the man in their midst replied.

“You know my name?”

The man nodded. “Yes, Captain. We retrieved your spacecraft’s logs from our archives, you are an expedition team from the defunct NASA, a space agency of the former USA.”

“Wait a minute,” Rachel said. “Did you just say ‘defunct’, and ‘former USA’?”

The man nodded. “Yes, just as we also previously said that you were from Older Earth.”

“Older Earth?” Rachel repeated, confused.

Just then, Malcolm, and Claire stepped into the dock. They both glanced around, and saw the four strange people standing with their captain.

“What is happening here?” Malcolm asked.

“I think the appropriate question should be ‘what are you doing here?’” the man asked.

Rachel raised her hands. “It’s all right, Malcolm. They are from the Immigration Panel of this planet. We should be the ones responding to their queries, not the other way around.”

Malcolm nodded. “I apologize.”

The man smiled affably. “No problem. No offense taken. Well, we will let you be right now. We have crosschecked your logs, and systems, and we are satisfied that you do not pose any threat to us, or our existence.”

“But wait,” Rachel said. “You did not tell us anything about yourselves.”

“What do you want to know, Captain?”

“Well, a lot of course. Like, where are we, and what is this place?”

“I see that you have so many questions. To start with—somehow— you were able to locate one of our time portals.”

“You mean the wormhole?” Rachel asked.

“Is that what you want to call it?” the man asked with a frown. “Anyway, time portal, wormhole, or whatever your people decide to refer to it, that is how you came here.”

“Where are we?” Claire asked.

“You are on Earth,” the man replied. “Earth in 6097.”

Malcolm gasped. “Sixty. . . what?”

The man nodded. “Yes, 6097. Now, before you get all excited, and ask more questions, I would like to let you know that henceforth, you are all welcome to visit, but whenever you come, make sure you come with this device,” the man said, stretching out his hand to Rachel.

At first, his smooth, pure-white palms were empty, then suddenly a tablet-like device materialized out of thin air. He handed the device to Rachel.

“That is an entry visa,” the man continued. “Ensure that during your future visits, you have the visa with you.”

Rachel nodded. “And what if we have other questions?”

“I’m sure you will have many,” the man agreed. “But shouldn’t you first confer with your superiors on what questions you want to ask?”

“Our superiors?” Rachel repeated.

“Yes, your bosses at NASA. I believe it would be more appropriate to report back to them, then come back with better preparation to ask the right questions.”

“Yes, yes,” Rachel agreed. “You are right.”

“All right then, Captain Rachel. We will take our leave now. Have a safe trip back to your time,” the man said.

Rachel nodded, but before she could respond, the four Immigration Panel members vanished right before their eyes.

Malcolm glanced from Rachel to Claire. “Did he say 6097? Are we dreaming?”

Rachel shook her head as she placed the device on her console. “I really hope not. We better get back to our time, and report this to NASA as quickly as possible. I am sure Claire will be ecstatic at the thought of going back to the Earth of our time.”

Rachel, and her team returned to earth, and NASA in their time. After submitting all the reports, and providing the evidence from their recordings, as well as those from the drone, NASA took charge of the situation by deploying other astronauts, and scientists to establish contact with the Future Earth, and who lived there in 6097.

There were incredible media, and public curiosity about their story, and the pictures, and videos they brought back from their travel ran on TV channels in loops until the people got sick of it.

Rachael, and her crew were idolized, and participated in all the prime time news shows on TV, and online channels.

However, NASA’s briefings were sustained, and extremely detailed. They scrutinized every single submission of theirs, tried to find fault with all their reports, and cast aspersions on what was quite incontrovertible evidence of them having actually had the experiences they claimed to have. Already there were rumors in the media that the whole time travel bit was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by NASA.

Though clearly angry at the treatment she, and her team received, Rachel understood the compulsion behind the sustained interrogation—information as potentially transformative of the way mankind lived their lives had to be processed very carefully indeed. As she walked out of the NASA building, she saw a framed picture of a statement that was beamed back by the rover Curiosity, from the surface of Mars in August 2012. Hello. This is Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator, speaking to you via the broadcast capabilities of the Curiosity rover, which is now on the surface of Mars.

Since the beginning of time, humankind’s curiosity has led us to constantly seek new life… new possibilities just beyond the horizon. I want to congratulate the men, and women of our NASA family, as well as our commercial, and government partners around the world, for taking us a step beyond to Mars.
This is an extraordinary achievement. Landing a rover on Mars is not easy—others have tried—only America has fully succeeded. The investment we are making… the knowledge we hope to gain from our observation, and analysis of Gale Crater, will tell us much about the possibility of life on Mars, as well as the past, and future possibilities for our own planet. Curiosity will bring benefits to earth, and inspire a new generation of scientists, and explorers as it prepares the way for a human mission in the not too distant future. Thank you.

“Those were much gentler times,” she said out loud, her voice laden with nostalgia.

Days went by, then eventually weeks, and months.

 

***

 

Rachel was in her office at NASA, when the intercom buzzed. She leaned forward, and answered. “Yes, who is it?”

“There is a guest here to see you, Commander Rachel,” her secretary said.

“Who?” Rachel asked irritably. She had had a long day, and wanted nothing more than to head home to her husband, and daughter, but with this guest arriving now, she knew that she might be in for the long haul. Meetings at NASA took interminably long, and she feared that she might be in for a dreadful dinner meeting.

“He says he is a member of the Immigration Panel from Future Earth, Commander.”

Rachel frowned. “Member of the Immigration Panel? From Future Earth?”

“Yes, Commander,” the secretary replied.

“Please send him in,” Rachel said, standing up from her seat.

Her doors slid open, and her receptionist walked in with the man. He was still how she remembered him from their first meeting.

“Good evening sir,” Rachel said. “Why did you bother going through our reception, and all those protocols? You could have just come directly to me, and avoided all that.”

“Avoid all your protocols? No, that would not have been appropriate at all, Commander. In our world, breaking protocol is a cardinal crime, punishable most severely indeed. As a matter of fact, we went to war with another planet that broke protocol, and had to annihilate it, regrettably. Similarly, we are in your world now, so we have to observe every standard procedure, no matter how cumbersome, and inefficient they might be. We are immigration experts, so we understand the need for such protocols.”

Rachel turned to her secretary. “Please get our guest something to drink.”

“Yes, Commander. What would you like to drink, sir?”

The man shook his head. “No, no, no, please don’t bother with refreshments. Maybe some other time.”

After the secretary left, Rachel sat down with her guest.

“You are now a commander?” the man asked.

“Yes, that was some time ago. NASA promoted the members of my team, and I as a reward for our efforts in discovering the portal. So I guess I owe you one.”

“I see. As far as owing us is concerned, I am glad that you possess the virtue of gratefulness. That gives us great hope for our mutual relationship. In any case, congratulations on your new appointment. I see that there has been a lot of interest in our time portal.”

Rachel smiled. Ever since that memorable trip to their world, life on earth had become much easier, thanks to the access to the advanced technology that the travels to the Future Earth had brought to their world.

“Interest would be an understatement. Almost everyone is deeply engrossed in it. You cannot imagine the impact it has had on our technology, and life in general. From astronauts to space tourists, and scientists, it’s the first time anyone has been able to travel FTL to other worlds, and it is truly phenomenal.”

“We knew it would be,” the man replied. “We noticed that your people travel to other worlds through our time portal.”

“Yes, they do. We have discovered several dimensions, and extensions of our planet we never knew existed. This discovery has completely changed our perception of reality, and existence forever.”

“That is all in order, as expected.”

“So, why are you here today? I mean, it has been quite a while since we last met.”

“Yes, Commander Rachel, as per our records, the last time we actually met in person was back on our Future Earth precisely one year, four months, and twenty-two days ago. You were heading an expedition team.”

“Yes, I do recall that meeting. It wasn’t long after, that I got promoted, and charged with more administrative duties.”

“I see. Then that means we are in the right place.”

“The right place for what?”

The man stretched out his hand. Rachel immediately recalled what had happened the last time he had done a similar thing. An entry visa in the shape of a tablet had materialized. She could guess, this time, something similar was about to happen. Out of nowhere, a similar-looking device suddenly began to materialize.

“Another entry visa?” Rachel asked, smiling as he handed it to her.

“No, Commander Rachel, this is not another entry visa, this is your outstanding bill.”

“Outstanding bill? I don’t understand. What for?”

“The costs accrued by you regarding your people using our time travel portal till date.”

Rachel scanned the device’s screen, and her eyes widened in disbelief. “A hundred billion dollars?”

“Yes, 100 billion dollars, all in gold, of course. That is the first invoice for your use of our time travel portal.”

“The cost of our using your time travel portal is one hundred billion dollars?”

“No Commander Rachel. The cost is not a hundred billion dollars. This is just the first invoice, and this first invoice is a hundred billion dollars.”

“This is just the first invoice?” Rachel asked, staring at the device in her hands.

“Yes, there are two more invoices of about the same amount, but those will be presented later, not immediately.”

“This is insane.”

“Insane?”

“I mean, how can you charge us for using your time travel portal? We discovered it, didn’t we?”

“Well, you are right about that, Commander Rachel, but whose technology is it that you have been exploiting all this while to advance your FTL causes, and expeditions? I believe you realize that it is our technology, and not yours, and even though you discovered the time portal, it is ours, and ours alone, remember?”

Rachel sank deeper into her seat. “But you never mentioned anything about costs before. Why is this coming up now?”

“Come on, Commander, don’t be so naïve. Did you expect that we would not bill you for making use of our technology? Did you expect that it was going to be free? The last time we checked, you people still engage in payments, and settlements for transactions between persons, organizations, and institutions. So, what is abnormal about this bill? Commander Rachel, please do not allow this to bother you. We are confident you can easily handle it.”

“Bother me? Of course, I am severely bothered, and disturbed.”

“No, you shouldn’t be. I am sure your superiors will be reasonable, and will do the right thing, especially when they understand what they stand to lose if we decide to shut down our time portal because of the non-payment of this bill.”

“No, you cannot shut it down.” Rachel shook her head vehemently. “You cannot shut down the portal.”

“You don’t think so? You seem to forget who owns it in the first place, and may I remind you that under the commercial laws that govern the use of inter-galactic assets, if a debt like this is not fulfilled after a 30 days period, we will have no other choice than to lay claim to the entire resources of your planet earth. Besides, we would be within our rights to take coercive action to secure our right.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“We would not just shut down the portal, but we would go ahead to occupy the entire earth. You could of course choose to resist us, and it would be an honourable thing to do. But is it honour, or commerce that makes human being progress in life? It’s difficult to say.

“On Future Earth, we greatly admire the ancient Greek philosophers for their thinking. They spoke brilliant words, but did their glory last very long, with all their high ideals? On the other hand, the Romans, the British, and indeed the Americans always understood trade.

“That is why they were so successful. But you, Commander Rachel, is possibly different. You might be like Socrates, you would accept a death sentence than compromising your principles.

“On the other hand, you might be a practical person, and consider what I told you, to be nothing other than a fair business deal. Quit living in your romantic fairyland, Commander Rachel, and understand that life is all about hard decisions, and compromise. Maybe you need to think again about that while you prepare our payment. Good day, Commander.”

After he left, Rachel sank into her seat further, and got lost in her thoughts. She started thinking whether the true driving force of all human endeavors had always been commerce.

Civilizations first occurred in river valleys, where the land had been fertile, and people could grow food, and prosper. Prosperity had led to luxury, and the developments of fine arts.

This in turn, had led to a need for teachers, and guides to teach students, and apprentices, further leading to a virtuous cycle (some would call it a vicious cycle) of economic activity in which there had been no option, but to progress.

So mankind progressed to unimaginable levels; yet never found fulfillment, as there was always more progress to be achieved. For all practical purposes, man became the proverbial donkey, lunging after the carrot dangling on a thread in front of its nose by the rider. The further the donkey went, the further went the carrot.

But there was one huge issue with this model of commerce, which was pegged on growth—it laid waste Earth’s resources. Therefore, mankind turned to space.

There was so much potential for accessing limitless resources. The only thing keeping them from these, of course, was technology. But technology got better with each passing day, and going forward, man would have access to the boundless resources of the universe—even a tiny fraction of that would be enough for human beings.

Would even the entire universe ever satiate mankind? Wondered Rachel. What would men do if they had the entire resources of nature? Destroy it?

Despite all her doubts, and misgivings about the futility of progress, Rachel knew that she was as hooked as the next man. Progress was the lifeline of men.

Denying them progress would be akin to caging a wild tiger. The poor beast would pace inside his cage until it dies of a broken heart.

So there really was no immorality in denizens of Future Earth driving a hard bargain about the time travel portal.

After all, our worlds were separated by a mere handful of years.

Evolution takes millions of years to metamorphose a species. All the progress that these descendants of men had made were technological, and therefore virtual, and not real.

Their motivations were no different from modern men. They were no different than operators, and managers of our highway toll plazas, and canals. They would collect rent.

One could therefore try to negotiate with them. Use everything within our power to strike a fair bargain.

These traders from the future wouldn’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

One could haggle, and bargain about the price, ask for a discount, promise more journeys through the portal—there was so much one could do. Was trade, commerce, or business really ever bad?

If these didn’t exist, man would still be living in caves. No, it was in human DNA to trade. It was something even animals do! Don’t bees use the nectar in flowers as a reward for helping in getting plants pollinated? Isn’t the dog man’s faithful companion because the latter provides for it?

Even children love their parents for what they could do for them, and the latter often pamper them in the hope that, in their old age, their children would look after them. When this did not happen, there was much despair, and pulling of hair.

Rachel knew that both the director of NASA, and the federal government would blow a fuse when they come to know about the invoice being presented by Future Earth, and in their foolishness, might blame her first.

She could imagine the Director yelling at her, ‘Why didn’t you tell us? Why did you keep us in the dark?’ Even though, she was essentially a scientist, not a goddamned MBA with a specialization in finance! But after a while, the reality would dawn on them, they would realize that they had no choice except to smoke the peace pipe, and negotiate.

What the denizens of Future Earth had done to Old Earth was what the colonialists had always done to the native people—got them hooked on goods, and services they did not need, then charged them the earth for it. Come to think of it, advertising did the same as well.

She had to meet her directors to present them the bill. How aptly had the twentieth-century mathematician, and philosopher Bertrand Russell described the essence of capitalism—‘Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty, which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate’.

The leaders of Future Earth were even more capitalists than they were anything else, and they must be dealt with as such. The directors of NASA, and the US Trade Commission would enjoy talking to them. For it seems they all speak the same language, Rachel thought to herself.

Rachel hurried out of her office. Rachel knew that the time portal must not be shut down. It could not be shut down. One could bargain, and negotiate, or one could take a courageous, and defiant stance, and refuse to pay a penny. But the fact of the matter was; there’s no turning back the clock now. The time travel portal existed, and we knew where it was, and we have to keep it open. It could not be otherwise.

 

THE END

Lamees Alhassar