Author : Bob Newbell
The ship sprang into existence at the edge of the Groombridge 34 A system. The vessel’s matter wave attenuator drive, having allowed the vehicle to quantum tunnel across 127 light-years of space, slowly powered down with an audible drop in pitch throughout the ship. The starship’s two occupants were not quite organism, not quite machine. Nor could such quaint notions as sex or race be applicable to them. The twin red dwarf stars that comprised the Groombridge system painted the cockpit crimson.
“Why the detour?” asked the one called Betlu.
“We have to transmit a message,” replied Ebbud.
“A message to whom?”
“Have you ever heard of a ship called the Artemis?”
“It was the first manned ship to attempt faster-than-light travel.”
Betlu frowned. “What has an ancient ship to do with your cryptic message?”
“It is to the Artemis our message will be directed.”
Betlu’s frown deepened.
“The Artemis was the first attempt to send a vessel with a crew from the Sol system to Proxima Centauri. It was launched in 2377,” explained Ebbud.
“Launched when?” asked Betlu. Ebbud restated the date using the standard galactic calendar.
“That’s preposterous!” exclaimed Betlu. “Why that was 7,200 standard years ago!”
“Yes, it was,” said Ebbud. “Shortly after the Artemis was launched, an error in the calculations programmed into the ship’s primitive FTL drive was discovered. It never emerged near Proxima Centauri. The miscalculation caused it to remain in hyperspace, emerging into realspace for only a second every 2,400 years.”
“But our ancestors weren’t immortal as we are,” protested Betlu. “The crew would be long dead.”
“They employed a crude hyperspatial warp drive,” said Ebbud. “From the crew’s perspective, no time would pass while they were in hyperspace. The vessel has sailed the galactic sea like a modern-day Flying Dutchman.”
Betlu did not recognize the antique reference but from context comprehended Ebbud’s meaning.
“A ship has been tasked with trying to contact the Artemis every time it has momentarily emerged from hyperspace,” continued Ebbud. “Calculations show the vessel will emerge from hyperspace here in a few moments. We must be ready to transmit our message.”
“What message will we send?”
“The word ‘of’.”
“‘Of’? Just one word? And what does that even mean?”
“It’s from an ancient language used by our ancestors called English. It’s a preposition. Twenty-four hundred years ago another ship encountered the Artemis and transmitted the word ‘out’. And 2,400 years before that still another vessel sent the word ‘drop’.”
“Drop out of,” said Betlu. The ancient words told him nothing.
“And in another 2,400 years a vessel will intercept the Artemis when she emerges in the Oort Cloud surrounding Gliese 777. That vessel will send the word ‘warp’. From the point of view of the Artermis’ crew, just a second after their attempted jump to Proxima Centauri, they will have received a message saying ‘Drop out of warp’. Depending on how quickly they respond to this message, ships will be positioned at various locations in the galaxy at various times that the Artemis might emerge. It may yet take many millennia.
“All this time and effort,” said Betlu, “for a group of barely intelligent primitives who tried to set out for the stars before they were ready?”
“All this time and effort for pioneers,” Ebbud corrected, “without whom we would not now enjoy the benefits of galactic civilization.”
Just then, another vessel appeared, ancient and ghostly. Ebbud and Betlu’s ship transmitted its monosyllabic message just before the other spacecraft faded into nothingness.