Somehow this went missing, so I'm adding it back to my blog)
Link back to part 1
He didn’t see much of her for the next three days. Then it was time to outfit the Barge for the next set of field measurements. Thomas and his team of technicians would be accompanying Dr. Vandermeer on the mobile test platform. The test apparatus was expected to create an energy field that would distort local space in accordance with the Vandermeer Theory. Past experiments had produced measurable effects, but there were still discrepancies from the predictions. This trip was intended to generate a stronger field than before for more precise measurements. But bending space in close proximity to a crowded research station was considered somewhat rash. The 90 meter long platform, nicknamed the Barge, was used to conduct all the Hermes tests at a minimum distance of 50 kilometers from the station.
Sarah pulled Thomas aside while Erin and Josef were assembling and aligning the power collimator for the field generator. “I just want you to know, I’m not avoiding you.” She looked down at her hands. “At least, not for the last day or so. I’ve just been so busy getting ready for the test.”
Thomas gently lifted her chin until she was looking into his eyes, and waited.
“Tom, what is it like? You’ve lived so long, you must have seen everything. How boring does it get?”’
He laughed, but stopped when a flash of anger touched her eyes. “I’m sorry, but that was funny. You couldn’t have known, though. The only time I have ever been bored was before I knew I wouldn’t die any time soon.”
She frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Sure it does. I only got bored when I couldn’t decide what I wanted to spend limited time on. When I discovered that I had time to spare, I became more interested in everything. The more I see, the more I realize there is to learn. Seen everything? When everything keeps changing and evolving? How could I ever be bored?” He brushed back a loose strand of her dark hair. “And you’re really wondering how I can’t be bored with you, after all the women I have loved.”
She looked at him impassively, then dropped her eyes and nodded quietly. “It crossed my mind.”
“Other men have had women in their pasts, but that doesn’t prevent them from loving. In fact, they often learn from previous relationships.” He squeezed her hands reassuringly. “I am with you, and only you, Sarah Vandermeer, every part of me. And I have never met anyone like you before. You are the most wonderful, most important person in my life.” He kissed her, and she clung to him tightly and sobbed.
That night, they made love as if for the first time, then slept entwined and at peace. In the morning, they joined the rest of the tech team on the Barge and prepared to launch. The team worked as a well tuned machine, and they soon released the moorings. Sarah stole a look at Thomas as he played the thruster controls with the finesse of concert pianist. She didn’t think he saw her watching, until he winked without looking her way. Warmth rose in her cheeks as she turned quickly away.
Thomas fired the braking thrusters, and soon the Barge was holding position 52 kilometers from the station. Josef ran through the final checks on the field generator, and then Thomas began ramping up the power according to the test plan. After three hours, Sarah took the data collected so far to the analysis lab amidships. An hour later, Thomas brought the next block of data to her. He turned to leave, but she stood up suddenly as he turned to leave.
“Wait. These last few readings don’t look right. When you get back to the generator, put it on hold at the current level and run a diagnostic on the instrument array.”
Thomas looked over her shoulder. “I see what you mean. But what could …”
There was an abrupt lurch, and everything in the room flew against the aft wall, including Thomas and Sarah. He slammed against the bulkhead first, and felt something hard penetrate his back. Then Sarah slammed into him, and he lost consciousness.
Sarah tried to catch her breath as she rebounded from Thomas and drifted across the room. A computer screen tumbled toward her, and she brushed it away. The only light in the room shone from the two recessed emergency lights. As she rotated in free fall, she found herself facing Thomas and her stomach lurched. A piece of conduit had been twisted away from the wall and was penetrating his abdomen. As she stared, his eyes opened. He looked down at the protruding piece of metal and grimaced. Then her rotation faced her away from him. When she again was facing him, he had pushed himself away from the wall, and was drifting toward her. The bloody section of conduit was still attached to the wall behind him. He caught hold of her and they drifted close enough to the far wall to seize a railing. They began to assess their predicament.
The power returned as the automatics restored critical systems. Thomas opened the door and entered the main passageway. The corridor pressure doors had all sealed when the power failed. He headed toward the field generator room where the other three techs were, but the second pressure door he reached refused to open. The vacuum warning light was blinking red.
Sarah had brought the computer back online. She was looking in disbelief at an image from the exterior camera mounted on the antenna array. The entire forward third of the Barge, where the field generator had been housed, was gone. She couldn’t see any wreckage, but the end of the remaining hull section looked like it had been stretched like taffy to jagged points. She heard Thomas reenter the room behind her.
He spoke quietly. “The corridor is breached between here and the field generator. I can’t tell what condition the others are in.”
She turned the screen so he could see. “They’re all dead. The generator must have collapsed into a singularity. There’s nothing left up there.” Her voice was flat with shock.
He joined her, and she held on to him. He was the only reality, and she clung desperately to him, afraid to let go. Then she remembered, and fumbled to lift his shirt. The puncture was still raw and ugly, but it was closed and looked as if it had been healing for at least a week.
“Even knowing that you – I would never have believed this if I hadn’t seen it myself.”
He looked at her carefully. “Are you all right?”
She nodded. “I think you saved me. You cushioned my impact.”
“That isn’t what I meant.”
“I know what you meant. I’m fine, Thomas. I really am. But Josef, and Walt, and Erin…”
“Yes. There is no possibility anyone could have survived that. As you said, the field must have formed a singularity and everything nearby was pulled in. Fortunately the filed collapsed when the generator vanished. But it had to have been quick. They probably never even knew what happened.”
They sat in silence for several minutes. Finally, Sarah spoke.
“Can we still maneuver? We have to get back to the station.”
Thomas nodded. “I’ll check. The engines are in the aft section, so we should be ok.”
He sat down to the computer and began the engine checks. Forty minutes later, he pushed back from the terminal. “The engines are fine. But we have a problem.” He sighed. “We aren’t where we’re supposed to be.”
Sarah looked at the screen, which was pitch black with a sprinkle of stars. “What am I looking at?”
Thomas pointed to one star, brighter than the rest. “As far as I can tell, that’s the Sun. At least I hope it is. If it’s not, we’ll never find a way home.”
“That can’t be the Sun. That would place us beyond Neptune.”
“Farther than that, I’m afraid. Judging by the magnitude, we’re at least several light months away.” He chuckled dryly. “Congratulations, Doctor. It appears your theories are on the right track.”
She punched his arm. “Thanks a lot. For all the good it will do anyone. We’re dead too, and it won’t be quick like the rest of the team.” She stopped. “Well I am, anyway. What will happen to you?”
“My body will shut down without oxygen. If they ever find us, I might revive, but I don’t know if I can stay suspended indefinitely. I drowned once, and nearly 200 years passed before I found myself beached on a desolate stretch of shore. But finding one tiny piece of wreckage in interstellar space? I don’t see much hope.”
Sarah looked at this man she loved, and he suddenly seemed unreal to her. She held him, and he held her. Eventually they slept, exhausted and full of despair.
Several hours later, Sarah sat up suddenly. When Thomas finally stirred an hour later, she was busy at the computer. She looked up at him, and her eyes sparkled. “We may have a chance after all.”
Thomas watched her, a smile on his lips. He loved watching her thought processes at work. She was clearly on to something.
She waited, but he said nothing. “We have a full set of spare components for the field generator, enough to rebuild it. And we know the power profile we used for the test. With a lot of luck, we might be able to reproduce the accident, and retrace our path. We can’t expect to get back to the station under our own power, but maybe we can get close enough to signal for a rescue.”
He thought for a moment. “But wait. We’ve lost a considerable part of our mass. Won’t that cause us to overshoot on the return trip? How can we compensate?”
Sarah shook her head. “No, mass isn’t part of the equation, as far as I can tell. What matters is the strength and geometry of the field. That will be the same, or at least will be if we can apply the same power profile. But I’m not sure yet which direction we need to align the generator. The field was directed forward, but were we thrown with it or opposite it?”
“We were thrown against the rear bulkhead,” He began, but Sarah was shaking her head.
That could have been from either the jump or the reentry. We need to be certain.”
Thomas nodded. “It will take a while, but I should be able to determine that once I have a more accurate idea of where we are. We have life support for nearly five weeks.”
“We need to keep as much of that as we can in reserve after we repeat the jump, to allow time for rescue. I’ll begin assembling the other field generator while you go stargazing.”
Four hours later, Thomas joined Sarah in the aft hold. She had most of the main field generator assembled, and several of the power components were unpacked and secured nearby.
“We traveled point-six-three light years in the direction the field was projected. To return, we will have to point the aft of the Barge toward where we need to go. You realize we won’t have maneuvering jets once this end of the ship collapses, right?”
She nodded. “Right, I thought of that. But we should be able to take our shot tomorrow. Why don’t you start assembling the power stack.”
He heard it in her voice. “What aren’t you telling me?”
She set down the tools and pointed to a shattered assembly in the corner. “The power control interface is beyond repair. The initial accident slammed it into the support column. There’s no way to control the power profile remotely or by a program.”
“Damn! So one of us will have to ramp the power manually.” And it won’t be her, he decided.
They worked in silence for several more hours, until Thomas set down his tools and made her put hers away as well. “No more today. We can’t afford any mistakes. We should get a good night’s rest and finish tomorrow.”
They made dinner together, choosing the best from the stored supplies. This had been reserved for a celebratory feast at the conclusion of the test run. Now it felt like a funeral spread. They spoke little, and not at all about the looming decision. After the meal, they lay in each other’s arms, taking comfort in quiet intimacy.
They shared breakfast, then labored to complete the field generator that would take one of them home. Each was determined that the other would be the survivor. Finally, the last component was assembled, and the final checks were completed. The decision could no longer be delayed.
Thomas spoke first. “You should secure yourself in Erin’s cabin. It’s in the best condition of the remaining rooms, and there is nothing left in there that isn’t secured.”
Sarah was shaking her head vigorously. “You aren’t in charge here, Mr. Gordon. Hermes is my project, and I get to make the hard decisions. You’re going home, and you will continue to live your extraordinary life. Besides which, you can survive longer if it takes more time for a rescue ship to reach you. That’s my final word.”
Thomas put a finger tenderly to her lips. “Forget it. There’s only one way this can go. I’d love to have spent the next 50 years with you, and I want to live. But there is no way I will trade two lives for mine, especially these two lives.”
She gaped at him. “How did you know? I only found out after we launched from RS-6.”
“You forget. I’ve been around a while. I have learned to see details other people miss, and to know what they mean. I knew you were pregnant when we were preparing the launch. You need to bring our daughter home safely.”
“Or son,” Sarah began, but stopped when she saw Thomas’ smile. “Ok, daughter.” She paused. “Tom, do you think she’ll…?”
Thomas shook his head. “No. She is not my first child. I have watched my children being born, growing old, and then dying. Whatever I am, it is not passed on. But that’s fine. She has a wonderful mother to raise her, and she will live a full life.”
They shared their final hours in slow, tender passion. They held each other for a long time afterward. Thomas made sure Sarah was properly secured in Erin’s quarters, and made his way to the aft hold. He adjusted the ship’s attitude to line it up with the distant sun, and began applying the power, following the program exactly. Five hours later, he keyed the intercom. “If this works, it should take place between three and five minutes from now.”
“We will never forget you, Thomas Gordon.”
“I love you, Sarah Vandermeer. Live well. Promise me that.”
The seconds ticked by, and Thomas began to worry. It was approaching the five minute point, and nothing had happened yet. If it took much longer…”
Sarah felt the ship lurch once more. She was well secured, but the main impact this time was deep within her heart. After what felt like days, she unfastened the restraints and surveyed the damage. The aft of the Barge now matched what was left of the forward end, and the stars slid past as the ship tumbled. The attitude thrusters were gone, so there was no way to stop the rotation. Then the sun slid past the viewport, and its disc looked the right size – Earth normal. As the wrecked ship continued to turn, she saw a tiny blue speck, larger than a star, although too small to pick out individual features.
She had come out closer to the Earth than to the station. She set to work restoring the systems that had shut down during the second jump. Within hours of powering up the distress beacon, she received a weak voice message, and was able to transmit a reply. A rescue ship matched course with the crippled Barge on the eleventh day after that.
Around eight months later, I was born. It’s hard to keep a low profile when your mother has entire planets named after her, but I’ve managed. With half a galaxy to roam, I’ve been able to lose myself when needed. But I treat every moment as precious. As my father knew, so do I. Nothing lasts forever.
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