Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer
Proteus is Neptune’s second largest moon. When unmanned probes were sent to explore Proteus in 2308, the radioactive decay of uranium-238 into thorium-230 revealed that the moon was not 4.6 billion years old as expected, but was less than 20,000 years old, making it the youngest astronomical body in the solar system. Consequently, GASA decided to send a manned science mission to Proteus in an attempt to understand its origin.
As the SS Verrier approached Neptune from the sunlit side, the majestic deep blue globe filled the foreground of the main viewscreen. Streaks of bright white clouds could be seen in the upper atmosphere rotating slowly around the planet. Well, perhaps “slowly” is the wrong adjective. The clouds only appeared to move slowly because of Neptune’s tremendous size. In reality, clocked at more that 1,000 miles per hour, Neptune has the fastest planetary winds in the solar system. They would be a Category 50 hurricane on an extrapolated Saffir-Simpson Scale. “Head toward Proteus, Mr. Gujarat, and set ‘er down,” instructed the captain. The helmsman dutifully entered the appropriate commands into the navigation console.
The Verrier skimmed above the irregular rocky surface of Proteus like a seagull effortlessly gliding above a choppy ocean. The helmsman selected the flat plains of the Challis Planitia, near Proteus’ North Pole. He oriented the bow of the Verrier toward Neptune and descended vertically toward the moon’s surface. When the landing pads touched down, the ship lost all power. The bridge became pitch black.
“What the…,” exclaimed the captain as the low intensity emergency lighting activated, giving the bridge a red hellish appearance. “Mr. Kelheim, what happened?”
“Unsure, Captain,” replied the Chief Engineer. “I’ll have to look at the main power grid.” He unbuckled himself and headed toward the equipment locker. “The backup batteries will provide life support for 48 hours. Hopefully, I can get the main power online before then.” With the captain assisting, they began to systematically work their way from the generators toward each of the ship’s primary stations. They replaced several overloaded power couplings and disconnected all nonessential systems. After four hours, they were ready to reset the circuit breakers. They all breathed a sigh of relief when the ship’s lighting came back on. They could hear the whine of the air circulation pumps as they ramped up to maximum. However, when the main viewscreen came online, the bridge lighting appeared to flicker rapidly. When they looked at the viewscreen, they could see Neptune rotating at an unbelievable speed. In the background, the sun was flashing like a strobe light as it was rapidly rising and setting as Proteus whipped around Neptune several times a second.
The helmsman turned toward the captain, “What’s going on, sir? Why is the universe going so fast?”
Realizing what was happening, the captain ordered, “Prepare for immediate take off. Get us off the surface, fast! The universe isn’t going faster, Mister Gujarat; we’re going slower. Apparently, there is an extreme time dilation effect on Proteus. That’s why the radioactive isotopes showed it to be so young. The flow of time has practically stopped here.”
Once in space, the Verrier returned to normal space-time. Neptune’s white clouds were again moving lazily across the upper atmosphere. The stars appeared motionless behind Neptune. “Contact Earth,” ordered the captain. “Find out how much time has elapsed.”
Even at the speed of light, it took the radio transmission four hours to reach Earth, and then four more hours for the answer to return. The year was 2395. The Verrier had been declared lost 85 years earlier.