You’ve never felt so excited. You just graduated from Space Academy, and you’re waiting outside the office of Dr. Andre Bartok, Director of Interstellar Exploration. In a few moments you’ll receive your first assignment in space.
You’ve hardly settled into your chair when an assistant says, “Dr. Bartok will see you now.”
The thin, balding director looks up from his computer as you enter the room.
“Come in—I’ve been expecting you.” He smiles for a moment, then gestures for you to take a seat on the other side of his long, crescent-shaped desk. You glance around the luxurious room. A huge montage of the Canopus star system lines one wall. Opposite it is a holographic display screen.
Through the window behind the director’s desk you can see the new Athena spaceship parked on the tarmac. You hold your breath as you watch Dr. Bartok scanning your file. It seems like forever before he looks up from his screen.
“You’ve had a brilliant record at the academy,” he says, “and I want to send you on a mission of great importance. I’m going to give you a chance to pilot the Athena.”
You practically fall out of your chair when you hear this. Most of your experience has been in simulators and on training cruises. Yet the Athena is the most advanced spaceship in the fleet. It has unbelievable speed and maneuvering capability.
“Well,” Dr. Bartok says, “are you interested?”
“Interested? I sure am. I can hardly believe it. I would have thought you’d want an older, more experienced astronaut for such a mission.”
“You’re right. I would,” he says with a laugh. Then his face becomes serious. “The reason you have been selected is because you are young. This mission requires long periods of hibernation and two major time dislocations. Our tests show that only someone about your age can withstand the stress involved. If we were to put you into suspended animation when you were ten years older, you might never wake up.”
“I understand,” you say, though you’re beginning to feel a little nervous. “Just what is this mission about, Dr. Bartok? Is it what I’ve heard rumors of—the first probe of the Pleiades star system?”
The director types a code into his computer.
The room darkens slightly, and a projection of the Milky Way galaxy appears on the holographic screen.
“We have in mind a more important, more daring mission than that,” he says. “Nothing less than a trip to another universe. We want to send the Athena through MX-12, a black hole near the center of our galaxy.”
You sit dumbstruck, thinking of what you learned about black holes at the academy. You know that there are places where matter is squeezed together—where gravity is so great that not even light can escape it, which is why, if you were close enough to see one, it would look absolutely black.
That’s frightening enough, but what’s worse is that everything that enters a black hole keeps falling until it reaches a point where its entire mass is compressed into nonexistence!
Some scientists have argued that all this mass can’t completely disappear—that it has to go somewhere. They believe that in black holes there may be “wormholes” leading to another place, and that astronauts knowing the parameters of a wormhole could navigate through one and survive.
“Excuse me, Dr. Bartok,” you say. “Wouldn’t tidal forces rip a spaceship to neutrons before it even reached the wormhole?”
The director glances at a document coming out of his printer.
“That’s the general rule,” he says, “but if the black hole is rotating, and is big enough, it’s theoretically possible to get through.”
Those words “theoretically possible” bother you. No theory is valid until it’s been tested. And no human—not even a supercomputer—knows what happens in a black hole. You’re not eager to stake your life on a mere prediction.
Dr. Bartok must see the doubt in your face, because he says, “Of course, you don’t have to go on this mission. I wouldn’t have called you in except that on your questionnaire you said you were ready for anything. There is another option. We’re also going to send the Athena’s sister ship, the Nimrod, to the edge of the black hole. It will act as a rescue ship and observer. Of course, I must warn you, even going to the edge of a black hole is dangerous. So if you prefer, I’ll assign you to the transport service, where you’ll be as safe as if you stayed in bed all day.”
You don’t feel like risking your life getting anywhere near a black hole, but going into the transport service and spending ten years or so carrying iridium crystals back from Vega-9, or something like that, would be hugely boring. There’s no doubt in your mind about what to say:
“I’ll accept the assignment, sir.”
Dr. Bartok gets up and comes around to shake your hand. “I’m delighted,” he says.
“Now, do you choose to go on the observer ship, the Nimrod, or are you willing to go on the Athena and try to make it through the black hole?”
Go on the Athena, click here
Go on the Nimrod, click here
“I’d rather go on the Athena,” you answer.
Dr. Bartok nods vigorously. “Excellent—I wish I could go with you. If you make it, you may see things that could never be observed on Earth, or even in our galaxy—things that are literally out of this universe. And I have something to tell you that may relieve your anxiety.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“This is top secret, so not a word about it.”
“Of course, sir. You can count on me.”
Dr. Bartok walks behind you and closes the door to his office.
“Only a few people know about this,” he says. “The Athena is equipped with an antigravity generator, the first ever to be deployed. Don’t try to use it except to escape from the pull of a black hole. There wouldn’t be enough gravitational resistance against it. Another thing: It can be operated only once before being recharged back on Earth, so use it only as a last resort.”
“Certainly, sir. I hope we don’t need it. But another problem is that I’ve had no training with it.”
“You won’t need any. All you have to do is remember the emergency code—3.1415. This is top secret, of course. You are forbidden to write it down. You must remember it.”
“Right—3.1415. I won’t forget it, sir.”
“I’m sure you won’t, but I must tell you one more thing. The antigravity generator should work when used in the right circumstances, but we can’t guarantee that something won’t go wrong.”
“What would happen then?”
Dr. Bartok frowns and lowers his voice: “Everything in your spaceship—every part of your body—would fly apart at nearly the speed of light.”
“Not a pretty thought, sir.”
“I’m afraid not. Now on to a cheerier topic. I’m sure you’ll want to know who your copilot will be—Nick Torrey.”
What a break—Nick is one of your best friends! “I’m very excited,” you say.
You’re not only excited, you’re scared. If things don’t go well, even with an antigravity generator you could end up as trillions of neutrons crushed in the middle of the black hole.Continue here
Cape Canaveral—Three Weeks Later
The Athena is on the launching pad. You and your copilot, Nick Torrey, are strapped into your positions in the command station.
You’ve been checked out on the antigravity generator. Your Mark VII celestial computer has passed all tests.
The whole world is tuned to its video screens, watching as the countdown proceeds.
Many have praised your mission as being the most important in history, though some have said that it’s a waste of money and will be a waste of your life, too—that no one, ever, can survive a trip through the black hole.
They may be right. But it’s too late to change your mind now. A green light flashes on your instrument panel. Final countdown: four, three, two, one . . .Click here
Deep Space—180 Months Later
You and Nick have just awakened from hibernation. The computer didn’t disturb you until the Athena was only a few billion miles from the black hole.
Nick is bent over a view screen. He looks over at you.
“Hey, you overslept,” he says. “I’ve been up for five minutes.”
You laugh politely, swing out of your bunk, and ask the computer for a scan of celestial objects within ten light-years. You know you should be looking for the wormhole parameters—the key that will allow you to pass through the black hole and enter another universe—but you’re fixated on data the computer is feeding you.
“Nick, check screen four!” you say. “A terra planet, one almost exactly like early Earth. Its sun is a class G star only two billion years old.”
Nick lets out a noise as if he’s cheering at a football game.
“This is what NASA has been spending a fortune looking for!”
“Yeah,” you agree. “It could be the backup planet we’ll need when the sun heats up.”
Nick’s cheering is replaced by a groan. “We missed the wormhole parameters!”
“Ow. That hurts. My fault,” you say. “It will be hard to find the wormhole without them.”
“Shall we scratch the black hole mission and inspect the terra planet?” Nick asks.
“Can’t. It would violate our orders,” you say. At the same time, you’re thinking that this would be the wisest thing to do.
Break off the black hole mission and head for the terra planet, continue here
Continue on to the black hole, click here
This terra planet is what every Earth scientist has been hoping to find, a place so like our own planet that humans could settle there.
Scientists are aware that the sun is gradually heating up. This is not the cause of global warming, which has to do with Earth’s retaining more of the heat it receives from the sun because of carbon dioxide buildup. The sun itself is heating up as it burns faster. Someday Earth will be too hot for living creatures, no matter what is done about carbon emissions. Long before then, earthlings must find a sister planet that they can colonize. There are billions of planets in our galaxy, but very, very, very few that are like Earth.
It’s with this thought in mind that you set course for Terra, the name traditionally given to Earth-like planets. In your opinion, finding a “twin Earth” is more important than trying to get through a black hole.
Within hours good news comes from your computer. Terra’s sun is an orange-yellow star with an estimated life of over twelve billion years. The planet’s orbit around it is such that it will get approximately the right amount of heat and light for five billion years after Earth becomes uninhabitable!
Terra grows steadily larger in your field of view. Your computer’s mapping program shows that it’s 65 percent covered by oceans, about the same as Earth. Cloud cover approximates that on Earth. Atmosphere is similar too, except that oxygen content at sea level is what you’d find at an altitude of about six thousand feet on Earth, thinner than at sea level but easy to acclimate to.
A big question is, Does life exist on Terra, and if so, what’s it like? You’ve detected blue-green areas on the planet’s continents, but nothing resembling the great rain forests that are still prominent features of Earth, though many of them have been destroyed.
To find out if there is life on Terra, you’ll have to set the Athena down on its surface.
You order the computer to prepare for landing but get back some bad news: If you use fuel to land on Terra and take off again, you won’t have enough to get back to Earth.
From a scientific standpoint your work would still be extremely valuable: You’d be able to radio data to Earth that might save humans from extinction!
Nick tells you that he is willing to land even though it means never getting off the planet again. You’re not so sure. The stakes are enormous for humankind, but it’s a huge sacrifice to make—committing to spend your life on another planet.
As you’re mulling this, an interesting thought occurs to you. You might be able to use the antigravity generator to get off Terra’s surface. If it works, you’ll have more than enough fuel to get back to Earth.
Land on Terra, click here
Collect what data you can and set course for Earth, click here
The Athena passes smoothly through Terra’s atmosphere. Your eyes are fixed on the surface, hoping to see signs of plant or animal life.
“There’s no pollution,” Nick says. “Everything looks clean and fresh. But so far I don’t see anything that’s alive.”
While Nick is talking, you are concentrating on finding a place to land. A few minutes later you set the Athena down on a high bluff overlooking a harbor.
You and Nick step out on the bare rock plain. You don’t see any signs of life, but the water, clouds, and sky remind you of Earth, except for the slight orange hue caused by the color of Terra’s sun. The air smells sweet and clean, though it’s a little thin. Air temperature is what you’d expect on a pleasant summer day.
You send out a robot to collect and analyze soil, water, and air samples. It returns half an hour later, and the computer analyzes its findings: Terra is rich in microscopic plant and animal forms with chemistry similar to that found on Earth!
This is great news. It means you’ll be able to collect and process enough food. Even though life has not developed here as much as on Earth, you are confident that Terra will sustain a large human population.
Computer analysis shows that Terra is similar to what Earth was like five hundred million years ago, well before the advent of dinosaurs. The largest animals here are probably not much bigger than ants, but if evolution follows a pattern similar to that experienced on Earth, in a few hundred million years Terra will be rich in large-scale animal and plant life. Trees will likely grow higher than on Earth because Terra’s gravity is about 20 percent less.
You’re quite sure that some creatures that evolve here will swim, some will fly, and some may even think the way humans do. Some may look like animals you’ve seen in the zoo.
It’s exciting thinking about how life on Terra will develop, but you’re feeling depressed. Terra may be Earth-like, but it’s not Earth. You don’t want to live here. You want to go home!
The computer made it clear that the Athena couldn’t use fuel to get back into space and still have enough to reach Earth.
You can think of only one possible way to escape, and that’s to use the antigravity generator.
Type in the computer code for the antigravity generator, click here
Resign yourself to staying on Terra, click here
You remember Dr. Bartok’s warning not to use the antigravity generator except to escape from a black hole. Instead of enabling you to get back to Earth, it would probably blow you, Nick, and the Athena into elementary particles.
Terra looks promising as a colony for humans in the future, but you’re not willing to land on it and never be able to get off. You instruct the computer to collect what data it can and set course for Earth; then you and Nick get into your hibernation suits, lie down, and go to sleep.
Years pass. One day the computer awakens you with welcome news: The Athena is approaching Earth and will set down on it within the hour.
Much on the ground looks different than you remember, but your ship makes a smooth landing at the space base. Because of relativistic effects, you have aged only a few months over the course of many Earth years. Scientists who were still children when you left Earth help you out of the ship. After medical checks you meet with the head of the Earth Federation and are interviewed by a panel of scientists. When you’ve finished, the chief scientist of the Earth Federation looks at you intently.
“It’s interesting what you found out about Terra,” he says, “but I’m sorry to tell you it’s useless knowledge. Terra, along with its sun, is drifting toward the black hole that you were sent to investigate. The rate of movement is constantly increasing. Terra will fall into the black hole and be destroyed within twenty years.”
It’s a heavy blow to hear this. “Maybe I could go on another mission to the black hole,” you say.
“I’m afraid not,” the chief scientist says. “As you know, you violated orders by taking the Athena to Terra instead of trying to go through the black hole. You will never be allowed on another space mission. We do have a new job for you, though, taking ice core samples in Antarctica.”
Too late, you remember that you were never to use the antigravity generator except to escape a black hole.
You remember Dr. Bartok’s warning not to use the antigravity generator except to escape from a black hole. You’ll just have to make the best of life on Terra and not mope over it. With Nick’s help you set up a laser-directed radio transmitter to send information to scientists on Earth. Even traveling at the speed of light, it won’t get there for years, but when it arrives, it will be one of the biggest news stories ever.
Once the transmitter is up and operating, you secure the Athena so it won’t be damaged in a storm, pack up your tools and supplies, and set out to explore this new world.
Who knows what you’ll find!
“I’d like to investigate Terra,” you tell Nick, “but we’d better stick to the mission we were assigned to—trying to make it through the black hole.”
Nick nods, but you can tell he’s not happy. You can’t blame him. Now that you’ve missed the wormhole parameters, the chances of getting through are close to zero.
But you have no time to dwell on such thoughts. The Athena is nearing the event horizon. You have to be ready for any emergency, and sooner or later an emergency is bound to happen.
It happens sooner! The computer screen lights up, telling of something that you studied at the academy but never thought you’d experience:
Gravitational field anomaly.
Nick’s eyes are on the screen.
“I studied this at the academy,” you say. “It’s not exactly good news, but it could give us the chance we need to ride a gravity wave through the wormhole.”
Even as you’re saying this, you’re thinking that latching on to a gravity wave is an extremely delicate procedure. The slightest error in speed, course, timing, or acceleration would be fatal.
Try to latch on to a gravity wave, continue here
Try to think of something else, click here
You concentrate on detecting a newly forming gravity wave. Nick slows the Athena to give you more time.
A few minutes later the computer reports that it has identified a weak wave. There is a low probability that it could carry you through.
Attempt to ride the wave you detected, click here
Wait in hopes of detecting a stronger gravity wave, click here
You’re still trying to think of what to do when the screen lights up.
Gravitational field anomaly stabilized.
Is that good or bad? Your mind feels numbed by stress. None of your training has prepared you for this.
Stop feeling pathetic! you tell yourself. You’ve got to think what to do.
Meanwhile, the computer monitor shows that the Athena is gathering tremendous speed, heading straight for the center of the black hole.
Another message comes up.
Thruster sensor failure!
Try to get safely through, click here
Try to reverse course and return to Earth, click here
You’re in command of the spaceship Nimrod and just woke up from hibernation. Your mission is to observe your sister ship, the Athena, as it attempts to pass through the black hole and to be of assistance in any way you can. You and your crewmate, Kate Soeiro, are trying to stay as close to the Athena as possible in case of trouble.
The stars behind you appear as reddish, glowing clusters because of the effects of relativity. You’re traveling almost as fast as the Athena, but you’re having difficulty staying in contact with it because of magnetic forces surrounding the black hole. Now a faint message has come through—a call for help: The Athena’s main thrusters have failed!
You set course for the other ship at maximum speed.
“How close to the black hole can we get?” you ask Kate.
She’s already keying data into the computer, and asks it:
“What chance have we of rescuing the crew of the Athena?”
The answer comes back:
Chance of rescuing Athena crew and escaping
black hole: 22%.
Chance of failing to rescue Athena crew and
escaping black hole: 18%.
Chance of being swept into black hole along with Athena
Variability factor—no prediction possible: 19%.
“There you have it,” Kate says. “What shall we do?”
Try to rescue the Athena crew, click here
Decide it’s too risky, click here
You keep trying, directing and redirecting the computer, but have no success detecting a stronger gravity wave.
Meanwhile, the Athena has been drifting closer to the center. The weak gravity wave passes. You and Nick look at each other. Neither of you knows what to do. Buzzers sound. Flashing lights come on. The Athena is accelerating, spiraling downward. Seconds later it’s destroyed by tidal forces near the center of the black hole. . . .
“We can’t just leave them, Kate. Let’s go for it.”
“Agreed,” she says.
You’re already keying instructions into the computer. The Nimrod begins speeding toward the other ship. You radio the Athena’s crew that you’re coming, though it’s unlikely the message will get through. The magnetic field near a black hole turns radio waves into a jumble. You’re straining the Nimrod’s space drive to the maximum, trying to reach the Athena before both ships slip below the event horizon—the point of no return. You ask the computer for the latest probability profile. The words appear on the screen:
Chance of rescuing the Athena: 0%.
“Kate, look at the computer!”
Her face is ashen. “But . . . why?”
You’re already asking the same question. In a moment you get the answer:
Athena destroyed by tidal forces at the periphery of the black hole.
You have failed to rescue the crew of the Athena, and the Nimrod itself is in peril. You command the computer to execute escape maneuvers, but get another message instead:
Passing through the event horizon.
“There’s no turning back now,” Kate says. Suddenly your mission has changed. Instead of being the observers, you and Kate are the ones who must try to make it through the black hole! The only trouble is that you haven’t been maneuvering in the precise way necessary to enter the wormhole.
The Nimrod is creaking and groaning from the gravitational differential between the bow and the stern. Even your body is being stretched! Gravity is so intense that the part of you nearest the black hole is falling faster than the part farthest from it! You hear Kate’s voice, croaking, as if her vocal cords are strained to the breaking point:
“I’ve put the computer on autopilot and told it to get us into the wormhole,” she says.
You’re both pinned against your restraints as the computer adjusts course. The scene through the view port is indescribably weird. Behind you is nothing but a faint red glow. Ahead, space is completely black, except for a ghostly halo of dark violet. In the center of the halo is the singularity, the source of the terrifying gravitational field that is probably about to crush you.
Unlike the Athena, the Nimrod isn’t equipped with an antigravity generator. Your only hope is that some unknown force is at work near the center of the hole, a force that could lead you to another universe!
Your fingers are shaking as you punch a question into the computer: “Can you steer us into the wormhole?”
The reply comes back:
You know what that means: The normal laws of physics do not apply here. Neither logic nor knowledge will help you decide.
Kate is also watching. “I thought it might come to this,” she says softly.
You sit frozen at the controls. How can you make a decision if you have no reason to do anything?
Click either here
“You make the repair, Nick,” you say.
Without a word, he puts on his space suit, grabs the kit with sealant XK42, and steps into the air lock. In a moment the hatch closes behind him.
The seconds tick by.
It’s hard waiting. What’s going on out there? You feel panic building. You want to help, but there’s nothing you can do.
Time is running out!
“Nick! Nick! Are you all right? What’s going on? Can you hear me?”Click here
Nick’s voice: “Mission accomplished—no problem.”
No problem! That’s Nick—real cool about everything. At least most of the time.
“Good going,” you say. “Now get back in here. We have another problem ahead—the biggest black hole in the galaxy!”
You wait anxiously for him to reach the hatch and let himself in. You touch a few keys on your computer keyboard. The screen displays the information you want:
Distance to event horizon:
Distance to singularity: 14,822,000,000 miles
Speed: .54 c.
A shudder runs through your body. You can survive inside the event horizon. The singularity is another matter. It is the point at the center where all matter may be crushed out of existence. The numbers on the screen make the black hole sound far away, but .54 c means you’re traveling at more than half the speed of light! You didn’t realize you were this close to the event horizon. Once you pass it, there will be no chance of reversing course, even at full emergency power. But where is Nick? You hear his voice:
“I can’t open the hatch. It’s jammed!”
“Hold on!” Why would the hatch be jammed? Maybe it’s relativistic effects. They’re getting more extreme every second! You can’t leave Nick outside the spaceship while you’re entering a black hole.
You’ve got to get the hatch open, and fast! You rush to activate the electronic controls. They aren’t functioning. You try the emergency levers. They won’t move. The metal is bent. You turn to the computer and say, “Hatch is inoperable. Metal warped by effects near black hole. What is best action?” You wait for the computer to respond. You’re not even sure it’s programmed for the solution. At last a response:
Hatch opens inward. Apply 600 pounds pressure
evenly against exterior of hatch surface and it will open.
That’s no help! There’s no way you or Nick could apply such pressure!
“Computer, what is the best way to apply pressure?”
You have to wait for what seems like forever for the reply:
You almost scream with frustration. Why is the computer being so slow and unhelpful? It’s supposed to be the best onboard computer ever built.
You don’t have time to ask more questions. You’ve got to use the computer in your brain! Suddenly you realize how you could use your inertial force to open the hatch. All you have to do is adjust course slightly, and the door will fly open. The question is: In which direction should you turn the ship? The door is on the starboard, or right, side and opens inward. Should you turn the Athena slightly to port, or left, or slightly to starboard?
Adjust course to starboard, click here
Adjust course to port, click here
“The odds are too much against us,” you tell Kate. “We’d be pulled into the black hole after the Athena. I think we’d better return to the base.” You start keying in the coordinates for the return flight to Earth.
“At least we’ll have gathered new data on black holes,” you say. The booster thrusters fire. The Nimrod swings into its new course. Your eyes remain fixed on the deep reddish glow that surrounds the black hole.
You can’t get your mind off the astronauts who were crushed into nothingness. You glance over at Kate. She seems hypnotized by the sight as much as you are. Neither of you are looking at the display screen of the area ahead of you. It’s not until an audio warning sounds that you’re aware of the stray comet hurtling across your path on its way into the black hole.
Normally, you would still have plenty of time to avoid it, but the tremendous gravity of the black hole has accelerated the comet to more than a tenth of the speed of light.
When you become aware of it, it’s more than ten thousand miles away, but it travels that far in less than a second.
“I’ll make the repair,” you say. You put on your space helmet, lock it onto your space suit, grab the kit with XK42, and step inside the air lock. A green light tells you it’s safe to proceed.
You open the outer hatch, snap on your tether, and swing into space. Your legs float straight out as you grab the EV rail and move hand-over-hand toward position A-7.
In the sky ahead of you is a coal-black disk, growing larger as you watch.
The computer is patched into the radio in your helmet. You can hear the seconds ticking off. Thirty-six, thirty-five, thirty-four, thirty-three . . .
It could take a lot of that time just to reach position A-7, and will take more time to seal the crack.
You give the jet pack on your space suit a burst of power and overshoot, but manage to work your way back along the hull. Finally you reach A-7. The crack is clearly visible. You can almost see it growing!
You get out sealant XK42 and struggle to unscrew the cap.
Why didn’t they design it so you could get at it fast?
Finally you get it open.
You apply the sealant!Continue here
Sealant XK42 may be hard to open, but it’s a miracle of chemistry. The seal you just made is stronger than the original titanium!
Time to get back inside the ship!
You work your way to the hatch, listening to the seconds still ticking in your helmet. The time to failure that the computer predicted is past. What a relief! It was the sensor that was faulty, not the sealant you applied. You reach the outer hatch and look around. The part of the sky where you’re headed is a vast black disk. Surrounding it and extending 180 degrees behind you is a shimmering ring of scarlet light.
Nick’s voice in your earphones: “You did a great job, but get back in here. We’re coming up on the event horizon—traveling at sixty percent of light speed!”
You feel dizzy. The whole ship is vibrating. You’re at the edge of the whirlpool, the point from which nothing can return!
Seconds later all is calm again. Your dizziness passes.
You send the radio signal that should open the door. Nothing happens. You try again. Still nothing. Vibrations must have knocked the microlocks out of alignment—you’ll have to open it by hand.
“What’s the matter?” Nick yells in your earphones. “Are you having—” His voice cuts out.
You struggle with a spanner wrench, trying to loosen the door. Your hands are shaking.
Suddenly the hatch opens—too much! It’s jammed open. No way you can close it.
You’re in the air lock now, but there’s no reasonable way you can get inside the cabin—the inner door is designed not to open unless the outer door is closed. You could blast it open, but then the cabin would be depressurized and all the oxygen would escape.
You shout into your mike, “Nick, can you hear me?”
You’re trapped in space with a half hour of oxygen left, and you can’t even talk to Nick! You look around helplessly. The sky is coal black. You have never felt so alone. You don’t even have stars to keep you company.
A space traveler is used to stars and galaxies shining far more brightly than they appear on Earth. But now that you’re inside the event horizon of a black hole, you and Nick are cut off—not only from other humans, but from the rest of the universe!
You try Nick again on the radio. Still no luck. You rap on the door. He should be able to hear it. You rap again as loudly as you can and keep rapping.
Then you wait. There’s no response. What’s wrong with him? Is he still alive? You try to take stock of the situation.
You’re inside the radius from which not even light can escape. No telescope on Earth or in outer space could see you, no matter how powerful it was. You are still millions of miles from the singularity, in which matter is crushed out of existence, but you’re falling toward that point at more than half the speed of light. You could reach it in less than a minute.
If the rules of physics hold true, you’ll have no chance of survival. But some scientists have said that the rules of physics don’t apply in a black hole, that no law can describe what happens in such a strong gravity field.
Theories are one thing, but your chances of survival can’t be good—you’re not even inside your spaceship! You’ve got to do something!
Why hasn’t Nick heard you? He may need your help. Maybe you should blast the door open. It would depressurize the cabin, and that could hurt Nick, if he is still alive. You weigh the risks for a moment.
Blast the door open, click here
Try to think of something better, click here
Scientists on Earth have thought up many theories about what it would be like in a massive black hole. Most think that you would be torn apart by a gravity field millions of times stronger than that on Earth. But some say that if the black hole were rotating and you entered at just the right speed and angle, centrifugal force would balance gravitational force, and you might safely pass through.
Sometimes such theories are right, sometimes wrong, and sometimes half right and half wrong. You and Kate are about to find out, for the Nimrod is plunging at almost light speed toward the singularity—the terrible vortex.
One thing soon becomes clear and gives you hope. The hole you’re falling into is rotating, and the centrifugal force that has been set up precisely balances the force of gravity.
Gradually, like a speck in a column of water swirling around and around on its way down a drain, the Nimrod begins to whirl around the vortex.
Turbulence might jostle a speck away from the wall of water, causing it to fall straight down. But this does not happen to the Nimrod, which will whirl around the black hole for thousands, and hundreds of thousands, and hundreds of millions of years, at which time, through another quantum divergence, your skeleton, and Kate’s, will finally make it through the black hole.
You put on your helmet and command the computer to fire a minimal burst from the port thruster. The Athena turns very slightly to the right. At this speed even a slight change produces an inertial force of more than three g’s. You’re thrown hard against your restraints.
The outer and inner hatches both open, and Nick flies into the main cabin, landing on the inside wall of the hull, his spring-loaded space boots absorbing the shock. Air in the cabin rushes out through the open hatches. Nick floats wildly around, coming to rest only when he grabs the handholds near the air lock.
You hear his voice on the radio in your helmet.
“Thanks for getting me in here. I’ll get this hatch shut so we can repressurize.”
“Okay,” you answer as you adjust the ship back on course. “Let me know if you can use some help.”
Even as you’re speaking, you can see that no help will be enough. The force from the course correction was so strong it not only forced the inner hatch open, it ripped it from its hinges. It floats by, and you catch it and tie it down.
Nick kicks off a wall and floats to his control station a few feet away. Neither of you says anything. You both know that you’re in deep trouble. It’s dangerous enough trying to get through a black hole under perfect conditions. To try it now would be suicide.
Nick has already asked the computer what options are available.
The answer comes up on the screen:
Option 1: Reverse course, full power; radio contact with Nimrod may be possible in 13.6 hours.
Option 2: Set course for planet Nicron, full power.
No other options.
You and Nick exchange glances. “What do you think?” you ask. “Shall we ask what the percentage chance is on each option?”
Nick shakes his head. “Too many variables. We don’t know where the Nimrod is. It may be on its way back to base. As for the planet Nicron . . . all we know is that it’s the nearest one in the Tau Gamma system.”
You glance at the chronometer. You’re almost at the event horizon of the hole, the point beyond which nothing can escape!
Reverse course, click here
Try to reach the planet Nicron, click here
The Nimrod, with you and Kate aboard it, plunges toward the singularity. To your amazement, the computer tells you that the centrifugal force almost precisely matches the gravitational force. You and Kate are not torn apart by gravity, but float weightlessly as the Nimrod whirls around and around the vortex of the hole.
The forces here are so great that the mighty thrusters of the Nimrod have no effect. There is a chance, though a slight one, that a quantum fluctuation—some unpredictable disturbance—will save you. Normally, the chances of such a thing happening are one in trillions. But inside a black hole, forces are so great that the laws of physics are altered in ways never experienced on Earth.
Without warning, a quantum disturbance flicks the Nimrod out of the whirlpool. Exactly what happens then, you’ll never know, nor would scientists be able to explain. The forces are so great that you lose consciousness. But when you come to, you know that you must have passed safely to the other side of the black hole, for things are very different than they were before.
Everywhere you look there are stars and nebulae. Training your telescope on the heavens, you can make out fuzzy patches of light. Most of these, when you increase the magnification, have a familiar spiral pattern.
“If we’re in another universe, it’s a lot like our own,” you say to Kate. “What’s more, we seem to be in a galaxy similar to the Milky Way.”
Kate looks at you curiously. “Is it possible that after passing through the black hole, we came back to our galaxy?”
“This is a problem for the computer,” you say. “It should be able to tell us.”
The computer has to analyze the positions of thousands of stars and other galaxies. Fast as it is, it takes almost ten minutes to respond.
Galaxies are close to the positions they were in, but stars are in different positions.
Nothing else shows on the screen, but an amber light indicates that the computer is working on a more precise analysis.
“What do you think of what it’s telling us?” Kate asks.
“It’s pretty clear,” you say. “We’re in the same galaxy, but not at the same time—we’ve come out thousands of years in the past or thousands of years in the future.”
As you finish saying this, the computer confirms your guess:
Time is 6,810 years ahead of when you left Earth.
“If that’s so,” Kate says, “why are the other galaxies still pretty much where they were before?”
“If you’ll remember how far away they are, then you’ll know,” you say. “It’s as if you were in a car going fifty miles an hour and closed your eyes for a few seconds. When you opened them, nearby trees and houses would be in a different direction than when you last looked, but distant mountains would still be in the same direction.”
As you say this, you’re punching instructions into the computer: “Locate Earth and sun. Set course to intercept them. Give estimated time of arrival.”
Fortunately, the sun and Earth are close by—only a few hundred light-years away. You and Kate settle down for a long hibernation. When you wake up, you’ll be home, almost ten thousand years after you left. You go to sleep, dreaming what it will be like.
Adjusting course to port, you command the computer to fire a minimal burst from the starboard thruster.
This causes the ship to turn slightly to the left. At this speed even a very slight course change produces an inertial force of more than three g’s! You’re thrown hard against your restraints. It hurts. But what hurts more is realizing that the hatch has not only opened; it has flown off into space and taken Nick with it!
You instruct the computer to compensate for the variation, but you can already feel the opening in the hull, then nothing, as the Athena is ripped apart.
You pull out your laser pistol, aim it at the latch, and squeeze the trigger. An arrow of light streaks out, but instead of being a straight beam, it’s bent in an arc, curving back toward the stern of the ship, where liquid hydrogen is stored. How could that have happened?
Suddenly you realize why: You’re traveling at almost the speed of light in a massive gravitational field. Of course the laser’s ray would be bent!
The liquid hydrogen explodes in a weirdly distorted flare of light. The blast tears the Athena, Nick, and you into molecules that are soon reduced to neutrons that disappear completely when they reach the singularity—the center of the black hole.
You’re desperate, but you can’t see anything to be gained by blasting the door open. If Nick is still alive, he’d lose all his oxygen and could be hurt by depressurization.
But what else can you do? You’re traveling at close to the speed of light. Within a minute you could reach the singularity, where all matter falling into the black hole is compressed to a geometrical point. How this can happen is a paradox—a situation that seems impossible but isn’t.
This is no time to speculate. You work your way along the EV rail, moving forward, away from the thrusters. You reach the starboard view port of the control station and look inside.
Nick is slumped in his seat. There’s a dark reddish spot in his hair—blood. He’s still breathing. He must have been knocked unconscious by some object when the ship passed through the event horizon.
You take a wrench from your tool kit and rap on the cabin view port. Nick stirs a little. You beat out the Mayday signal. You hit the view port so hard it would break if it weren’t made of meteorite-resistant glass.
Nick stirs again. He lifts his head. You keep rapping. He looks around. He sees you. Slowly he staggers to his feet and motions toward the hatch. He’s going to open it! Luckily, he still has his earphones on.
“Nick!” you yell into your mike. “The outer hatch is blown off. You have to depressurize before opening.”
He nods and puts on his helmet. All is silent. You relax a little. He’s depressurizing the cabin slowly—compressing the cabin’s air into a tank so that loose objects won’t be blown out when he opens the hatch.
He opens the hatch and lets you inside.
“I don’t know what hit me,” he says.
“Turbulence when we crossed the event horizon.”
Nick looks out. “I don’t see any stars.”
You shake your head. “We’re cut off from the rest of the universe.”
Nick looks at the chronometer. “We must be almost at the—”
“Singularity,” you complete his thought. “Got to get ready fast! Computer: Repressurize the cabin.”
It takes a few more seconds to secure yourself for what’s to come.
It begins as a little shuddering of the ship. Not the ordinary kind of turbulence—just a slight quivering. This motion stops, and everything is frozen. The clock has stopped. You know this because you’re staring at it. You can’t stop staring at it. You can’t look anywhere else. You can’t move a muscle. Not even your eyeballs. You can’t blink. You can’t breathe, either, yet you don’t need air. Nick must be in the same situation, though you can’t see him—you’re facing the other way.
Even stranger is the way you feel, as if you are in a dream, though you know you’re awake. You wonder if time itself has stopped and you’ll be frozen like this forever.
You can’t move, but you can feel, and you have never felt such hopelessness, such despair. Better to have been crushed in a black hole than to be trapped in time, doomed to sit for eternity, staring at a stopped clock.
Years seem to pass, though it may only be days or hours or seconds—you’ll never know. And nothing has changed except that you have slowly become aware that you are in total darkness. The lights in your spaceship have either gone out or you have gone blind. You can’t tell because you can’t move.
If you could only report back to Earth what has happened. It would be of great interest to scientists to learn that a spaceship sent into a massive black hole will not necessarily be torn apart or crushed, that it may simply become suspended in time. But of course you’ll never be able to tell anyone. Even if you could move enough to work the radio, no signal could escape.
If only you could talk to Nick. Perhaps you can reach him through mental telepathy. Nick . . . Nick . . . can you hear my thoughts?
It’s no use. The harder you try, the more your mind freezes.
For a moment you think that you might sleep, but you’re unable to do even that. You can only sit motionless, waiting for that which may never come.Click here
You’re not sure how much time has passed. You first think that you’re back home in your own bed, then that you’re in the hospital. But it is not a doctor standing by your bunk, it’s Nick smiling down at you.
“I’m glad you came out of it, pal—I’ve only been awake a few minutes, but I was feeling pretty lonely.”
You sit up and look around, rubbing your eyes. Only then do you remember that you’re inside the Athena and that when you lost consciousness you were falling into a black hole and time had seemed to stop.
You look through the view port. The sky isn’t black; it’s a sort of pleasing apple green.
“Nick, did we make it?”
He nods. “We’re on the other side.” His voice is really soft, as if the two of you entered a tomb or a great cathedral. You know he feels the way you do—filled with awe.
There’s something about the light that makes you feel different, like you’re in a place beyond space and time. That, of course, is what’s happened. You have entered another universe.
You glance at the status screen. It reads:
Course: undeterminable. Speed: infinity.
“Nick, I don’t care if we have entered another universe—we can’t be traveling at infinite speed.”
“I don’t think we are,” he says, “but we may be traveling faster than light speed in our own universe. The computer would register that as infinity.”
“So the laws of physics are different in this universe,” you say.
“Some of them must be,” Nick says. “That could help us or it could hurt us.”
You stare out of first one view port and then another. Everywhere you look is the same vaporous apple green color, except for directly behind the spaceship, where you can make out a small white patch in the sky.
“Is that where we came from?” you ask.
“I think so. I’ve been keeping an eye on it since I woke up. It’s getting smaller by the minute.”
“So on this side the black hole is white!”
“We’ve learned that much, at least,” says Nick. “And that in this universe, space must be filled with some luminous gas; otherwise, it would look black, the way it does in our universe.”
“But if it were filled with gas, then we’d be slowing down and heating up, the way we do when we enter a planet’s atmosphere.”
Nick looks at you for a moment, thinking, then says, “That would be true unless the gas is extremely thin.”
He punches keys on the computer. In a moment he reports, “Our sensors can’t identify what’s around us.”
“I guess that’s because of the different laws of physics here.”
“We may never find out what the laws are,” Nick says. “Our sensors show nothing, except that we’re traveling at infinite speed.”
“Let’s see if the ship can still maneuver.”
You instruct the computer to first increase and then decrease power, then to turn at various angles. Everything works, but very sluggishly, or maybe time is moving at an extremely slow rate.
“At some point we may want to get back home,” Nick says. “Let’s turn around and head toward the black hole—I mean, the white hole. I want to see if we can get closer to it.”
“Let’s think a second, Nick,” you say. “If we can get back to our own universe, and to Earth, and report what we’ve experienced, it would be a tremendous accomplishment, but it would be even greater if we could learn more about this universe. Does it have stars and planets, for instance?”
“It would be nice to see more of it,” says Nick. “But the farther we go and the more fuel we spend, the less likely it is we’ll ever get back. Well, it’s your decision.”
Turn the Athena around and try to get back to your own universe, click here
Continue on in the new universe, click here
In a second or two you’ve given the computer all the instructions it needs.
Slowly—very slowly—the Athena turns back toward the fuzzy white patch that is probably the only link to your universe.
It takes almost an hour before you can completely reverse course. Your instruments still indicate the Athena is doing the impossible—traveling at infinite speed—so you have no idea what your speed really is.
Your eyes are fixed on the forward view port. You should see the white hole getting larger as you get closer. But it’s not—it’s getting smaller, as if you are still heading away from it!
Nick works on figuring out an explanation. At last he reports, “Our computer says the data won’t compute.”
“I’m afraid it’s almost useless in this universe,” you say. “All I can think of is that we’re in some kind of gaseous flow that’s carrying us along with it, away from the white hole. The current is so strong we can’t make headway against it.”
“Let’s turn back the other way,” Nick says. “At least then we’ll be pointed in the direction we’re moving.”
It takes another hour to bring your ship back on its original course. By this time the fuzzy white patch is completely out of sight.
Nick sighs. “I guess we’re stuck in this universe.”
“Worse than that,” you say. “We’re going to starve, if we don’t run out of oxygen first.”
“Look!” Nick points ahead and a little to the right of the ship. A round, grayish shape—what seems to be a planet—is growing larger as you get closer to it. Soon you see others. They come in different sizes, but each of them looks as smooth as a billiard ball.
“I don’t think they would support human life,” Nick says.
“Probably not, but let’s get as close a look as we can.”
The Athena speeds by several of the smooth gray planets. You see one that appears to be about the size of Earth. You point to it on the screen. “Let’s head for it.”
Nick gives a thumbs-up.
“I’m swinging her now,” he says. “I’ll put braking thrusters on standby—we don’t know how strong the gravity will be in this universe.”
“Good thinking,” you say. But you soon see that gravity isn’t going to be a problem. Your rate of approach keeps slowing, even as you apply more power!
Nick is staring at the instruments. “This is incredible. It’s as if gravity is working backward by pushing us away!”
“Of course—that’s it!” you exclaim. “That’s why we couldn’t get back to the white hole—it was repulsing us.”
“This is a disaster,” Nick says. “How can we land on a planet here? The moment we turn off the power, we’ll catapult back into space.”
“There’s one possibility,” you say. “If by some chance this planet is hollow and we could get inside it, then we could walk around on the inside of the shell—like ants crawling on the inside of a hollowed-out pumpkin.”
“Maybe so,” Nick says. “But what makes you think a planet might be hollow? There aren’t any hollow planets in our universe!”
“That’s because of gravity,” you say. “But here we’re seeing reverse gravity, which could hollow out the middle of the sphere as all the material in it is repulsed up to the planet’s inner surface.”
“How could we get to the planet’s inner surface? There are no signs of any cracks or holes.”
“It looks like a rather soft material to me,” you say. “If we hit the surface at full power, we might be able to burrow in. This ship is designed to take heavy shocks.”
Nick shakes his head. “Sounds like suicide.”
“It would be in our universe, but I don’t think it will be here.”
You take a look out the view port at endless green space. It seems empty of everything but smooth, gray planets.
“Well,” you say, “we could just keep cruising along and hope to find something else, but wherever we go, we’ll have the same problem of reverse gravity. Our food and oxygen won’t last forever.”
Nick stares out the view port, straining to see something else, perhaps a planet more like Earth.
Finally he says, “It’s up to you, friend.”
Try to hit the gray planet at full speed and burrow in, click here
Keep cruising, hoping to find something else, click here
“Let’s see what we can find in this universe,” you say. At the same time you accelerate the thrusters. The Athena streaks on through vaporous green space. You strain your eyes and keep checking the display screen, looking for stars or planets that might lie ahead.
“There’s one, off to the side,” says Nick. “Edis eht ot ffo, eno s’ereht.”
Huh? He’s talking gibberish. What’s going on? You look at the instruments. Somehow the Athena is going backward! And, listening to Nick, you realize that he is talking backward! The same thing happens when you try to speak.
The controls are all indicating the opposite of what they should. Distance is decreasing back to the white hole that is this universe’s side of the black hole in your own universe.
Now you’re lying in the position you were in when you came out of the white hole. You feel the shuddering and violent dislocation as you go back into it. You wonder if time will keep running backward once you’re in your own universe.
It doesn’t. The shuddering stops. You’re not back in your own universe. You have gone through a different wormhole—one that leads not to your universe, but to one where forward-and backward-moving time are perfectly balanced. Time is no longer passing.
You instruct the computer to reverse course and seek out the Nimrod. You know you are close to the point of no return. Still, you’re not prepared for the g-forces as the computer orders maximum power to bring the Athena on its new course. The gravitational force in the vicinity of a black hole is incredibly great.
Only a supremely advanced space drive like the Athena’s could break such a grip.
The ship turns ever so slowly, following an arc through space tens of thousands of miles long. At the crest of the arc—the point where you’re closest to the black hole and the gravitational force is the strongest—the ship seems to hover, as if it can’t decide which force to yield to. The slightest loss of power means certain destruction.
Slowly at first, then faster, the distance to the black hole begins to lengthen.
You hear Nick’s voice in your speaker. “I think we’re going to make it.”
Nine hours have passed since you escaped from the gravitational field of the black hole. Your radar is functioning again. Nick is scanning the area where the Nimrod should be on station. He’s still trying when you pick up something on the radio. It’s coming from a beamer, a missile containing a radio that beams a recorded message. The repeating message is encrypted. You instruct the computer to decipher it, then tell Nick to look at the monitor. The message is coming up:
To Athena from Nimrod: Mayday. Mayday.
We lost power in our main thrusters. We are
being pulled into the black hole. By the time
you receive . . . we’ll be gone. Good luck, mates.
The Athena may be lost too: There’s no chance of getting on the precise course that will get the ship through the black hole.
“We don’t have enough fuel or oxygen now to reach home base,” Nick says, “or even to go to Nicron.”
“I’ll ask the computer what our options are,” you say.
It seems like forever, but in only a few seconds the answer appears:
“Well,” Nick says, “we have to hope the computer is wrong. Maybe we should start for home and hope that another spaceship is cruising in the area.”
“I guess so, unless we want to try to make it through the black hole.”
“Either way seems hopeless,” Nick says.
You shrug. You have to agree with him. And as if you weren’t having enough trouble, your space suit isn’t working right. It feels like a steam bath inside.
Cruise toward home for as long as you can, click here
Try to head the Athena back toward the black hole, click here
You direct the computer to hold course. Now you and Nick are sitting grim-faced at your terminals, expecting the worst.
A buzzer goes off. Nick’s screen lights up.
“Not another failed sensor?”
“I’m afraid so,” Nick says. “We still might catch a gravity wave using all our power, but . . .”
“There are incredible forces. We’ll be trapped if we don’t act fast.”
Nick sounds like the stress is getting to him.
“We’ve got to act fast, but we’ve got to think it through,” you say. “We might try to go into the black hole faster than the stuff being pulled in. That way we might keep control of our spaceship. . . . Or we could hold off until we can ride through on a gravity wave.”
“If one comes,” says Nick.
You’ve got to decide now!
Hold off and hope you can ride in on a gravity wave, click here
Accelerate at full speed into the black hole, click here
You decide that it would be foolhardy to try to pass through the black hole without knowing the wormhole parameters. You’ve got to reverse course, and you’ve got to do it now! You key instructions into the computer.
It’s a strain on the Athena, and on you and Nick as well, but the ship slowly turns, wavering at times as the force of the black hole pulls on it, finally settling on course for Earth.
You’re traveling at two million miles per hour. That sounds fast, but at this speed it will take 116 years to reach Earth.
You try to keep your voice from shaking. “Nick. How long can we stay in hibernation and still survive?”
“There’s no way of knowing. But the computer is programmed to wake us up if our lives are in danger.”
“That doesn’t tell us much,” you say. “It c