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Long Range Operator

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Long Range Operator


Adrian M. Neville


One: Alien Son


Giese 674



Impossibly, the whole universe seemed to shake softly as the connection between Gliese 674 and Barnard's Star was established.  Through the Gate – like a quarter-kilometer-wide, silver-rimmed magnifying glass hanging in space – the pale red glow of Barnard's Star shone through, darkened only by the silhouette of its lone planet, Eos.  A thick mass of cables protruding from the rim curled inward and through the lens, physically connecting with its mate just over twelve light years away.
Almost immediately after the communications connection was established, an angel appeared on the main viewscreen of the Gnomon.
"Hello, Captain Holbrook.  This is Hub City at Barnard's Star.  Welcome back," said the angel with a smile.
Adam Holbrook, Operator of Axon's long-range constructor ship Gnomon, returned the traffic controller's smile.  He knew she had been chosen for the job specifically for her looks by Axon.  They believed that, after over a decade alone in deep space, their Operator ought to be presented with a pretty face – along with a substantial paycheck – to ease any "future shock" upon returning to a society that has left them so far behind.  Holbrook was absentmindedly wondering if they had similarly chosen male controllers on-hand for the return of Axon's female Operators, when the angel spoke again.
"Diagnostics are completed.  The connection is fully resolved.  You may proceed through the Gate.  That is, unless you're having too much fun over there," she said with a half-sincere giggle.  Holbrook confirmed his approach trajectory with the Gnomon's computers, and set the kilometer-long ramjet-hybrid toward the Gate.
As he approached the gate, Holbrook performed one last inspection of the alien sun behind him.  The system had been selected for exploration for three reasons.  The first was profit-oriented; Gliese 674 was known to have an intermediate-sized planet orbiting it – smaller than Neptune, it nevertheless offered a new, unclaimed wealth of resources.  Second: it provided a launching point for a further mission to 36 Ophiuchi – the scientifically notable triple star system was only 7.6ly away, as opposed to over nineteen from Sol.  Third, being itself only a 12.09ly mission from Barnard's Star, it lay well within Axon's "short-range limit" which relieved them from the obligation of paying Holbrook a hefty long-range bonus.
As the Gnomon passed through the Gate, Holbrook couldn't help laughing to himself.  At the Axon-enforced velocity limit of seventy per cent light speed, it had taken the Gnomon just over seventeen years to reach Gliese 674, subjective.  But as a ship's velocity approaches light speed, the further along the curve he went; at seventy per cent light speed, time dilates by a factor of 1.4.  As such, while seventeen years had passes aboard the Gnomon, nearly twenty-four had passed back on Earth…
Twenty-four years to get there; twenty-four seconds to get back.
Of course, Holbrook was only awake for a fraction of the time; Gate constructor ship Operators spent most of their missions in a metabolic suppression chamber – agelessly travelling for years, requiring only a few days of activity for every two years of hibernation.
"That's it, Captain Holbrook – you're through," the controller beamed.  "You may begin docking procedure with Hub City, mooring spar seven."
"Thanks," said Holbrook, steering the ship slowly toward the orbital city, hidden in the shadows behind the dwarf star's only planet.  The controller's cheery demeanour, as Axon's psych profilers had intended, was catching.  Holbrook found himself smiling at the viewscreen as the ship's computer made its approach to the station.  "So what did I miss back home?  Who won the Stanley Cup?  I mean the last twenty-three of them… Hockey's still a thing, right?"
Nearly imperceptibly, the controller's smile wavered.  Something was wrong.
"You had better report for debriefing as soon as you've docked, Captain Holbrook," she said.  "They'll catch you up there."
Something was indeed wrong.  While the ship itself was able to dock with Hub, Holbrook was denied access to the station for purposes of quarantine.  An Axon HR rep explained the situation coldly:  Nine years ago – Holbrook was roughly a third of the way to Gliese 674 – a nearly unstoppable plague had begun to spread on Earth.  The U-13 "Ultraflu" had killed nearly three billion people before having "run its course," being contained – barely – by fire and radioactive cobalt dust.  The Ultraflu did not spread off-world, but its cause was never discovered.  Some blamed terrorists; others, God; many believed it was released by the now-independent and prolific Mars Federation to assert power over its former handlers on Earth.  Many of the Terran nations moved their seats of government to Luna, and Axon had moved its corporate offices to Hub City, declaring sovereignty two years later.
Due to the unknown nature of the Ultraflu, Axon was not taking any chances with immigration – including from its pre-outbreak Operators.  Holbrook was granted full communications privileges at Axon's expense, but he was not, under any circumstances, to leave the Gnomon.  Instantaneous travel between star systems light years apart; Adam Holbrook may as well have been alone in Gliese 674.

***
Sarah had been killed by the Ultraflu.
The cables that connected each pair of gates allowed for instantaneous communication between systems, and Holbrook was able to discover just how many of his former friends had been affected by the outbreak and the ensuing chaos on Earth.  Empires had fallen; warlords had flourished, and, finally, order of a sort had been restored.
And Sarah had been killed by the Ultraflu.
Holbrook had fled when he found out she was pregnant.  He told himself he was doing his best to provide for the child by becoming an Operator; his first mission was paid in advance, and he wired nearly the entire amount to Sarah from the then-small archipelago orbiting Eos, which would eventually become Hub City.  He admitted his cowardice upon his return, hoping his mistake would have been forgiven.  Of course, it hadn't, and neither Sarah, nor Jacob – now seven years old – had any interest in seeing Holbrook.  Finding similar alienation from his former friends, Holbrook found little reason to remain, and embarked on a second mission, again, donating much of his commission to his estranged family.  
Now, upon his second return, he tried to contact his son, if only to offer his condolences.  Jacob, now thirty-two, had been studying at a research station in the Titan colonies during the outbreak.  Nine years later, he was one of the millions of Terran expatriates refused transit back home, and was currently living in Elysium Planitia on Mars.  For the first time, Jacob accepted his father's call, but the conversation was cold and distant.  Holbrook conveyed his condolences and quickly found a reason to end the call.

Two: Third World


Beta Hydri



The Gate connected flawlessly with its companion at Hub, immediately drawing energy ravenously from the contained warp phenomenon itself.  As the Gnomon passed through the gate, Holbrook was immediately impressed with the improvements made to the orbital city.
When he left for Beta Hydri, Hub City had been a spinning double-torus, protected from star flares in the perpetual twilight of Barnard's Star/Eos' second Lagrange Point.  Travelling the twenty-one light years from Proxima Centauri had taken him thirty years, subjective, during which the rest of civilization had advanced by over forty-two.  The station was now a massive cylindrical structure, punctuated at either side by a smaller torus.  Smaller outposts, ships, and large-vessel moorings dotted the area like chrome-plated moths.  On the surface of Eos, city lights shone.
This time, Holbrook was not greeted by an angel; instead, his ship was guided to a mooring spar by an automated controller, with only the slightest veil of synthetic decorum.  His debriefing was similarly emotionless.
The Gnomon was scheduled for an extensive refit, and Holbrook was given several weeks' leave until he could take another commission.
Jacob and his family had been killed in a dome collapse on Luna.  While the collapse was officially attributed to inferior maintenance practices; popular opinion pointed toward sabotage by an "Earth First" terrorist cell, bent on forcing society to work to restore Earth to its former glory.  As to Earth itself, it remained, effectively, a third world nation.  Still reeling from the Ultraflu, and devoid of any natural resources of value, its political power resided on the moon, as part of a waning "Lunar-Terran Confederacy".  The Mars and Jupiter Federations and their extrasolar colonies, along with Axon's own Hub City, were now the new political powerhouses in the empire of man.

***

Surprisingly, Holbrook was contacted by Deckard Servant, an Operator he had known from his training days.  Both having spent so much time travelling, neither of them had aged significantly, and Holbrook had no trouble recognizing his old friend in an "outdoor" restaurant in the inner rim of Hub.  Upon seeing Holbrook, the perpetually grinning Servant raised his arms theatrically, as if appealing to the heavens.  But while his old, fun-loving demeanour persisted, his eyes betrayed something else.  Weariness?  Shame?
"A miracle!  Another Immortal!  I'm not alone after all!  How've you been, 'Gliese 674?'"
"I wouldn't call Immortality a miracle, 'Epsilon Eridani', but I'm getting by.  I heard you had retired.  I had expected you to be an old man by now."
"I tried, Hol.  It's too late for us.  The world isn't what we used to know anymore.  And it's not changed for the better.  Remember when we used to do this for discovery?  Axon'd find new extrasolar planets, and send an Operator with a Gate to see what wonders we could bring back.  Now, they're just looking for rocks.  Anything they can pulverize and smelt, they'll take.  Anything else is just publicity."
Holbrook saw Deckard was flushed.  The drink in his hand hadn't been his first.  Or second.
"But no one cares about the discoveries anymore!  No one cares about anything anymore!  They look to the heavens, but can't see the ground is rotting away beneath their feet.  Or was that always the way it was?  I can't remember anymore."
"I suppose none of us ever did it for the sake of discovery either, Deck.  Weren't you just trying to escape your girlfriend's husband?"  Holbrook tried to maintain a jovial attitude, but he could see the truth in his friend's words.  Deckard's grin had faded.
"And we're the ones who get the worst of it, Hol.  We shoot around the galaxy at almost the speed of light, but the faster we go, the more the rest of the world is getting away from us.  I tried to retire, but I don't even recognize this world as my own anymore.  You want my opinion?  You ought to take a long-range commission.  Take the longest one you can find.  Check back here in a few hundred years, and if it's still like this, take another.  Keep going until we're back at the beginning if you have to.  That's what I plan to do."
"I think you've had too much to drink, Deck."  Holbrook said weakly.  He looked up at the city's horizon; his eyes followed the streets and buildings as they curled upward and around, until he was back where he had begun.

Three: Runaway


En route to Epsilon Corvi



Holbrook awoke in the metabolic suppressor groggy and disoriented.  At over 318 light years from Sol, it was by far the longest time he had spent in metabolic suspension, but the hibernation was normally broken up annually with short periods of activity.  He disconnected the electrodes and intravenous, and checked the ships log to see if anything was amiss.
To his surprise, he found the ship had overridden the system, and had kept him in protected hibernation for over seven years, citing "harmful environmental conditions" as the reason.  Stranger still, the ship's less protected short-term memory for the time was blank, as if erased.  But the ship overall was functioning normally; Holbrook found no alternative but to press on.

***

The Gate at the orange giant Epsilon Corvi failed to open; and Holbrook knew something was seriously wrong.  He waited a month for a return signal, but still the gate would not pair with its twin at Hub.  While nearly 450 years had passed by outside the Gnomon, Holbrook refused to believe humanity had somehow forsaken their Gate network.  His only option was to return home the way he had come.
It would be no trouble for the Gnomon itself – the Bussard Ramjet was able to scoop up free hydrogen particles floating in the void of space, compressing them until they fused, and converting that energy directly into thrust for the ship.  Additionally, the hybrid drive could gather excess energy and store it to power the ships systems, as well as fuel the ship while it was travelling too slowly to scoop fresh hydrogen.
What Holbrook was worried about was that his trip was now double the time he had planned for.  He would return to civilization nearly a thousand years after having left it.

***

At only 150 light years from Sol, IK Pegasi was the closest possible supernova to Earth by far.  Its explosion bombarded star systems within a radius of hundreds of light years with deadly gamma radiation.  Holbrook – who had been nearly 250 light years further from the explosion than Sol – had survived, protected by the ship's radiation-shielded hull and its thick-walled metabolic suppressor, but even still, the radiation had been powerful enough to damage the ship's memory banks that were in use when it hit.  Any closer and he would have been killed.
Hub was a scrapyard.  Hub City itself, without proper attitude adjustment, had literally spun itself apart like an old washing machine, and the pieces hung in a slowly-spinning clump behind Eos.  The gates were similarly damaged beyond repair.  The only thing left active was a small radio-buoy, which appeared to have been left long after the explosion.  The Gnomon's computer detected a repeating audio message originating from the buoy.  It was from Deck.
"To anyone who may receive this message…  You are all that's left of the human race.  While I know you'll check anyway, believe me: All life on Earth, and the rest of the solar system, is dead.  For all we had learned, the technology we had developed, and the catastrophes we have survived, IK Pegasi has wiped the universe clean from mankind.  No colonies known to me were outside the range of the supernova; only a select few of us: Long Range Operators.
I cannot even say that, together, we are all that's left of humanity.  Operator, you singly comprise the entirety of the human race.  There will be no repopulation; no 'starting over'.  We are presented with a unique opportunity.  We have limitless resources.  Your ship can fuel itself indefinitely; oxygen scrubbers and food recyclers can sustain you as long as you care to; and your suppressors will keep you nearly immortal.  We have no hard-coded mission anymore.  As a race comprised of a single being, you are free to exist in any way you see fit.  Explore.  See the wonders of space.  Forever.  As a civilization, that dream was impossible.  The human race – that is to say, you, Operator – is finally master of its own destiny.  Do not mourn for the loss of all you knew; for the human race is now, finally, ageless, and boundless.  Live for it, and maybe we will cross paths and compare notes.
This is Deckard Servant – a solitary race of man – bidding you happy travels."
Adam took one last look at the ruins of the old Man, and set a new course.
I had wanted to write the story for a long time now. A science-fiction college elective assignment gave me the perfect excuse to get off my lazy butt.

I'm moderately happy with the way it has turned out, but I think I may revisit it at some point and add to it. It reads very technical in places, but I don't really know if it could be entirely avoided.

My inspirations for the piece included Joe Haldeman's novel The Forever War, as well as the Canadian TV show Starhunter, and the X: Beyond the Frontier series of video games. Basically, there are so many SF works that feature man-made "Jumpgates" allowing for FTL travel; I wanted to tell a story about the poor suckers who had to fly out in the first place to set those jumpgates up. It's sort of a little jab at a well-known and commonly used science fiction device.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading my short story, "Long Range Operator".
© 2012 - 2021 Vanguard3000
Comments2
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harusame's avatar
Well written, I liked the way you name dropped in the first paragraph making me wonder who
the characters were, and in the second bit, the repetition in the sarah was killed by the ultraflu, that was a nice touch to let us know whithout saying it outright how that character was feeling about the statement. Very cool, hope to see more :)
Vanguard3000's avatar
Thanks, Harusame. I'm glad you like it. ;)