Z-End of the Line

It’s the last day of the A-to-Z Challenge! Z is for Zeta Reticuli, a binary star about 39 light-years from Earth, and fairly popular in science fiction.

If you’ve never heard a firsthand account of riding a hyperspace zipline, I’ll sum it up in two words: pure terror. Humans just weren’t meant for hyperspace travel, and if not for the ziplines connecting various star systems, we’d never have left Earth.

I never imagined myself volunteering to become a colonist. Colonization was for murderers, vagrants, and other riff-raff. But there I stood, at the “Z”-end of the zipline connecting Earth and Zeta Reticuli IV.

My first view of the fourth planet was beautiful in an eerie way: the hyperspace receiving station is an open-air acropolis carved from white marble. The structure looks like something built by Romans, and it’s the last familiar thing an incoming colonist ever sees.

Just past those towering columns, the cliff face plummets almost vertically down to the vast fields of purple crops, undulating in the wind. Isolated human settlements dot the landscape out to the distant horizon. Those are mostly two-story communal houses that the Z-Colony inhabitants have built from native thatch, and the blood-red adobe that’s ubiquitous on the planet.

As I viewed this alien countryside under the harsh lighting of the planet’s twin suns, I knew my old life was over. There was no way to ride back up the zipline to the “E”-end, and even if there were, no force in this universe could make me spend another microsecond in hyperspace.

“Thought you could get away from me so easily, Fortuno?”

My heart skipped a beat. That voice… “Reno?”

He approached me from the receiving station. From beneath the papyrus-like toga worn by all zipline travelers, he produced a spring-loaded stiletto knife. His brow furrowed. His long hair danced medusa-like in the thick air, whipped by wind and by residual electron buildup from hyperspace. A blaze of hatred poured forth from his eyes as he waved the stiletto at me.

“You think you can just sleep with another man’s wife, then ride a hyperline off to some exotic alien world to escape?”

“It’s not like that, Reno.” I held my hands up defensively. “I didn’t know she was your wife. I mean… when I found out, I called it off.”

“And then you ran. To your parents. To your friends. To Fortuno’s many fawning admirers.” For all my money, and all my popularity, there was no place on Earth where I had been able to hide from Reno.

“Yes,” I admitted. “I thought you’d be able to patch things up. You and your wife could have reconciled and been happy.”

“Reconciled?” he scoffed. “I killed her the night I found out!” he confessed, making a stabbing motion with his weapon. “Adulteress and adulterer, killed with the same weapon. Poetic, is it not, Fortuno?”

“You have an odd notion of poetry, Reno.” He had backed me up against the sheer cliff face. There was no escape for me this time: I would stand and die as a man, or be dashed to pieces on the jagged rocks far below. “But I understand your anger. Had I known, I never would have been with Maria.”

“Maria?” My assassin frowned. “My wife was Naomi.”

The two of us sat down at the edge of the cliff, legs dangling in midair, and contemplated our fate. We can’t go home again, and there’s nothing but murderers, vagrants, and riff-raff at Z-End of the line.

Albert Einstein’s Brain is Stolen!

A story written for day 1 of the A-to-Z challenge. A is for Albert Einstein, celebrated Nobel prize-winning physicist (for his explanation of the photoelectric effect), one of the founders of modern physics, and renowned hater of socks.

“Put down the brain and let’s talk.” Xav squinted at the thief, gamma pistol aimed squarely at his chest, body armor illuminated in bold blue to identify him as a law enforcement officer.

“No!” The masked thief took a step backwards, to the very edge of the 3108th story balcony. “Stay where you are! I’ll pitch this brain right over the railing!”

“Ok, citizen.” Xav lowered his pistol. Between the heavy traffic of the hover-expressway, and the twelve-kilometer plummet to ground level, the brain would never survive. He didn’t want the loss of Einstein’s brain on his head. “Can we discuss this calmly? Why did you do it?”

The thief’s eyes bulged. “He ruined everything!”

“Einstein? Citizen, you’re aware that Albert einstein-645461_1280Einstein died two hundred years before you were born?”

“This is the brain that birthed the Theory of Relativity,” ranted the thief. “Have you ever read the speculative fiction from his time period? That was the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Amazing Stories. Astounding Tales. The great founding fathers of the genre wrote tall tales about atomic starships cruising the galaxy. Terrifying aliens. Grand adventure.”

Behind his protective facemask, Xav frowned. “So?”

“So look around, cop!” The brain flopped around in its preservative-filled bottle as the thief spread his arms wide. “No atomic spaceships. No superluminal etheric communications. No green-skinned alien women. But if I destroy the brain that created Relativity, then all the dreams of those pre-Einsteinian writers can come true.”

Xav shook his head. “Citizen,” he lectured. “Einstein didn’t make the rules; he discovered them. Why, blaming Einstein for the lack of FTL is like blaming Isaac Newton for the existence of gravity.”

The thief withdrew the brain from the ledge, holding it close to his body. “Yeah?”

“Of course! Destroying the brain won’t help anything.” As Xav took a tentative step forward, the thief did not withdraw, so the police officer joined him on the balcony. He looked the thief in his masked face. “Look at everything we gained from Relativity. E=mc^2. A deeper understanding of the universe. Without Einstein, there’d be no fusion reactors, no laser communications, no time travel, no GPS.”

With his free hand, the thief removed his black mask, revealing himself to be a youth of perhaps college-age. “You’re right,” he admitted. “Besides, Einstein’s brain was already stolen once, and dissected. What good did that do?”

In a quick motion, the thief hurled the bottled brain over his shoulder. To Xav’s horror, the bottle followed a ballistic arc through the air, until a passing hover-truck crashed into it. The bottle shattered, spilling formaldehyde across the windshield. The massive hover-truck loosed a massive honk of its air horn.

“Why did you do that?” Xav shouted, horrified as he watched the cubes of Einstein’s dissected brain tumble chaotically to the distant groud.

The thief shrugged. “What does it matter? We have time travel, remember? You can go back and stop me before I even steal the brain.”

“Oh, of course,” Xav nodded. “I guess you’re free to go.”

“I’d better hurry back to Tau Ceti, then!” The thief shook Xav’s hand. “My fraternity is throwing a barbecue this evening. Who needs FTL when you have time travel?”

Xav pulled out his tablet to make an official report on the brain theft that was soon to be never happened. If there was a lesson to be learned from this, Xav couldn’t figure it out.

Tachyon Rocketry

In my last article, I fiddled with an interstellar spaceship propelled by a photon rocket. The maximum speed (more correctly, delta-v) of a rocket depends on the exhaust velocity of its propellant. Since we know of nothing that travels faster than light, photons seem to be the best possible propellant.

But what if our propellant traveled faster than light? Particles that travel faster than light are generally called tachyons, and if they exist, they have some very strange and inconvenient properties. (In fact, FTL Pizza recently closed its Tachyonic Anti-Telephone Booth because kids kept making prank calls to Albert Einstein.)

As the saying goes, “relativity, causality, and FTL: pick any two”…
Continue reading “Tachyon Rocketry”