Mission’s End

The roar and clanging of the heavy equipment in the hangar bay was deafening as Steve stood watching the men dismantling his ship, The Hope of Mankind. He moved quickly to avoid the drive core swinging past on a jerry crane—possibly a message from the operator that this was not the place for a hot-shot test pilot.

He turned his back on the ship’s skeleton, dodged a robot tractor, stepped over a pile of cables, and walked to the exit as quickly as he could in the space station’s artificial gravity. His ears still rang as he slipped through the door into the chapel-like quiet of the corridor.

Steve looked out the window to the hangar at the remains of the ship. Four months ago, he had launched from the station in high Earth orbit to test a radical new propulsion system, a drive that could move a ship into hyperspace. Three hours later, he returned to real-space two million kilometers beyond Neptune. The ship’s success meant one thing: at last, man could travel to the stars.

Two more test flights confirmed the initial hyperspace theories. Here was a new dimension of space in which the laws of physics were turned upside down and limits, like the speed of light, simply did not apply.

“Steve, I’m glad I caught you.”

Steve turned to see Tom Sangine, the mission director. “Hi, Tom. What’s up?”

“You’re on your way to the med center?”

“Yeah. More testing, poking and gouging,” Steve said. “I think I’m going to run out of blood before they run out of tests.”

“I’ll walk with you,” Tom said.

“Did you see my ship?” Steve asked. “A real shame. They’re tearing her heart out.”

“Yeah.” Tom started walking down the corridor with Steve. “It’s procedure. This hyperspace thing is so new. We’ve got to learn as much as we can.”

“I understand, but—”

“Fifty years ago we would have had a dozen test ships. We would have flown a hundred missions. We just can’t afford that now. Between the budget cuts and shortage of material, we’re lucky to get one ship flying.”

“Yeah, I know times are tough.”

“Steve, I just want you to understand what is happening—why it’s happening.”

Steve turned to Tom and grinned. “Well, maybe cutting some of the medical tests could save a few bucks.”

“We need the tests—”

“I know. I was joking.”

“No, listen. After each mission we tested the ship in every way we could think of. Now we’re pulling it apart to examine each component. And then we’ll examine each part down to the microscopic level. We have to know what the effects of hyperspace are. Everyone here on the station knows that Earth is finished. Where they still have food on Earth, it is heavily rationed. Most of the metal we’re getting for the new ship is coming from landfills. We’re barely getting the materials that we need. Mankind’s only hope now is to go to the stars; perhaps we’ll find a new Earth there. My orders are to do whatever it takes—anything—to complete the hyperspace mission testing. You’re a part of that, Steve. You’re helping make that possible.”

“I understand, Tom. I’m just bored with the testing. I know how important this is. Perhaps, when you’re planning the first star mission you’ll keep in mind that I’m the only pilot with experience in hyperspace?”

“Sorry. That matter is out of my hands.” Tom stopped. “Well, here we are at the med center. Steve, I just wanted to say thank you for—for your contribution to the mission.”

Tom glanced at his watch. “I’ve got to go. Thanks again.” He turned and walked briskly down the corridor and turned the corner.

Steve took a deep sigh and opened the med center door. He immediately felt a wave of nausea as the smell of antiseptics and alcohol swept over him. He forced himself to step inside.

Linda was usually there to greet him, but today the office was empty. It didn’t matter. The tests were always in room A4, so he walked down the empty hall to the room he had come to know and dread.

He took off his coverall uniform and hung it on a wall hook. He slipped on the med gown and sat down on the examination table to wait for whoever was giving the tests of the day.

A knock at the door surprised Steve. Usually he had to wait for half an hour for someone. “Come in,” he said more loudly than he intended.

The door slid open for a tall, thin, gray haired man in a lab coat. Steve turned to face the man. “Good morning. You must be the doc.”

“Good morning.” The doctor crossed to the sink. A muscular, male nurse stepped through the door and moved to the examination table behind Steve.

The doctor placed a medical pouch on the counter and then started washing his hands. “I’m Doctor Jacoby. You are Stephen Michael Williams, the hyperspace test pilot?”

“Yeah. I’m your guinea pig for today.” Steve lay back on the table as he watched the doctor preparing a syringe. “I don’t believe we’ve met before, Doc. After all the testing the past few months, I thought I knew all the med staff.”

“I don’t get to meet many people.” He approached Steve with the syringe and an alcohol swab. He pushed up Steve’s sleeve and rubbed his arm with the swab.

“What’s your specialty?”

“I’m in pathology.”

Steve felt the prick of the needle on his arm. “So, what do you have scheduled—for—me—today—?” His head relaxed on the pillow as he slipped into unconsciousness.

“Autopsy,” the doctor said as he checked Steve’s neck for a pulse.


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