The original draft was written on a mechanical typewriter, with no right margin until the middle of the 14th page. It was based on a dream I had, which explains some of the weirdness, but not all of it. All spellings, punctuation, capitalizations, science errors, etc. are as in the original.
I had always admired our sun. It was what had originally brought life to our planet some billion years ago by supplying the heat that kept us from freezing. With its help, we were able to become a rich and prosperous planet whose only worry was self-destruction. The death of the sun wasn't due for over six billion years.
It was a beautiful weekend. There were numerous white clouds daintily whisping to and fro in the sky, none of them daring to intercept the yellow-white morning star. But something else did.
As I was laying face up on the grass of a nearby park, I saw a layer of black completely cover the sun, leaving it only emitting scintillating rainbow bands surrounding the black disk, which seemed oddly glossed. That was strange, indeed, for the next total eclipse in the United States wasn't due 'till well into the twenty-first century. In addition, a total eclipse takes a full seven hours to reach totality; this thing, whatever it was, became black almost instantly. Finally, why was this thing lighting up the Earth as brightly as the sun would've normally?
As I was pondering over these weirdnesses, it suddenly became clear that this phenomenon was definitely not an eclipse when the area of blackness changed its appearence. It had doubled its size.
I quickly stood up, aware of a feeling of danger and fear fleeting through my body. What could possibly cause a pseudo-eclipse to double in size, and still leave an equal amount of luminous fringe around the edges? The only thing that could keep supplying this much light through this kind of obstruction was: a larger sun.
A larger sun! No, it couldn't be! It was simply impossible! It wasn't supposed to do this for ... for ...
Well, no matter how impossible it was, it had happened. As the black disc dissipated, the sky was filled with a paler, more yellowish light. As I glanced back up at the sky, the sun could be easily seen spinning its 25-day rotation in a matter of seconds per revolution. The sunspots on its photosphere were easily visible due to its doubled size, and it was a pale yellow, fading on into orange. Yes, the inevitable had happened; our sun was becoming a nova.
No. I simply couldn't accept the fact that our home planet would soon be a pile of ashes inside a red giant star, being slowly sucked into its central inferno by its constant gravity. I didn't want to have just a week to live, I wanted to live my life out to its full extent. I had to escape the nova's fury, and the only way to do this was to get off the planet.
I had recently read about the imminent launching of the space shuttle Columbia II, designed for interplanetary travel. A journey out as far as Mars' orbit would surely bring me out of nova range. The asteroid belt would be a perfect home, in fact, for the ten thousand years of the nova's life. At that distance, the temperature would be about 215 degrees farenheit (102 celsius) in a vacuum, or maybe as much as 61 farenheit in one atmosphere pressure. In fact, the Asteroid Belt was so loaded with rare (and common) elements that it had about triple the resource supply of earth, with the notable exception of fossil fuel.
The launching was to take place in San Diego. Even though I was in Santa Monica at the time, I felt an extreme urgency to get there as quickly as possible, along with a feeling of incredible distance, as of that from death to life, stretched across that score of miles. I had to take a Greyhound bus there immediately.
It was a shameful pity that only about three percent of the population of this country knew precisely what a nova was. The other ninety-seven percent probably thought it was some kind of car. Nevertheless, the people at Cape San Diego obviously had to know what the sun's odd shape ment. My bus was arriving.
Money was no object for this trip, since my life (not to mention the whole worlds') was on the line from that nova. The trip cost some hole money, but a trip to safety is worth any price, almost.
When I arrived, I was well ahead of the launch. I had not looket at the growing nova for over an hour, so I dared a glance into the heavens above. Now that was odd ... the nova seemed to be precisely the same size as it was when the nova stage began! Well, maybe a nova starts in very quickly, then slows down tremendously, taking about a week to expand to full size. No one had actually timed a nova before, so that may actually be a very accurate description. The world would find out soon enough.
The Greyhound stop was only about a five-minute walk away from the Cape entrance. I had expected to see a tremendous mob of that 3% of the world trying to force their way into the complex just to get aboard the departing shuttle. What I was, however, was a single guard making his everyday rounds by the front door. Could the public have been that uninformed?
The guard appeared a little groggy from patrolling; evidently it was nearing the end of his shift. In a moment of panickyness such as this, your eyes become very alert to anything unusual, although your brain may hastily jump to the wrong conclusion. From the slight crack in the otherwise closed doorway, I deduced that I wasn't the first attempting to get aboard this shuttle. Someone else knew of the nova.
I approached the guard rather quickly. When I reached him, I raised my arm to the height of my shoulders, pointed an arbitrary direction away from the building, and shouted, "Hey! Look, over there!"
The guard immediately redirected his gaze in the direction of my arm, and kept it there for a good number of seconds. Within that time, I was easily able to dash through the door, and allow it to close silently behind me. By the time the guard figured out what was happening, I was down the corridor, around a corner, well out of sight of the guard, who was then peering through the glass door.
As I was in transit to the heart of the complex, wherever that was, I encountered a few janitors, whose suspicions were obviously aroused because A) they had been working there for several years, and had not seen me here before, and B) I was running down hallways as though my life depended on it, which it probably did.
"Hay! Hay, where you goin'?!", the older of the two asked me.
I hadn't time to answer, and besides, answering would inhibit my passage even more than not doing so. I increase my determination in running, and in doing so multiplied my speed at no additional strain to my body. The janitors had to go back on duty, anyway.
After about a minute of following endless corridors in what I had assumed was the right direction, I finally arrived at a large red door marked "Launch elevator — autorized personnel only". I knew this had to be what I was searching for. I turned the knob and made the door fly open, expecting to see a large crowd trying to force its way into the cargo chamber.
What I saw, however, was three technicians, two japanese astronauts in space suits, and an eighth-grade oriental child prodegy named Alex Wei. Although the technicians didn't seem excited over my barging in, they weren't completely horrified, either.
"Who are you?" one of them asked.
"That's not important. What is important is that the sun is becoming a nova, and I need transportation off this Earth pronto."
"The sun? A car?!"
"No, no! A nova's — well, come to the window and see for yourself!"
Two of the technicians, and both astronauts, came to a nearby window and peered up at the sun. Yes, it was deep yellow and double sized, but the technicians still had no idea of what it meant. Evidently, Alex had tried the same maneuver, and obtained the same results.
"Uh, how many people is there room for in that space shuttle up there?" I was making a reference to the cabin an elevator shaft's length above us. We were at the shuttles soon-to-be-vacant base.
"About seven," declared one of the technicians.
"And how many people are going on it?"
"Three; these two astronauts, and this short Albert Einstein."
"I was ... wondering if you'd ... have enough room for four."
"I want to go on this shuttle, too."
"Hmmm ... well, okay. But you'll need a space suit ... just in case."
He quickly led me to a small closet labeled "Space suits". Digging into the racks, he pulled out and presented me with a loose lump of space suit sections, which looked like big, semicircular slices of Spam.
"Hey, what am I supposed to do with these?"
"Just lay them all over your body and they'll all come into place."
That was indeed what they did. I began with my legs and built up to my neck, covering my head with a large helmet. After about thirty seconds of standing inert, the glue (or whatever it was) between the spam slices had become an airtight bond completely protecting me from the elements. In addition, this suit refined the air I used just as a plant would so that my air supply would never run out!
I quickly removed the suit; it wouldn't be necessary until deep sace near the asteroid belt. If we were going to the asteroid belt!
"Hey, where's this shuttle going?" I asked.
"The asteroid belt."
Well, that cleared up that problem. Now the next problem:
"When's this thing gonna launch?"
"In about, oh, five minutes."
Hmmm ... I'd never seen such a casual and quick launch before. I guess space travel was becoming more of an everyday thing than I'd expected. Nevertheless, I had to get into the cabin, and very quickly.
The elevator edged up from the ground pad, carrying me, Alex, and the two fully-suited astronauts. The airtight doorway was completely open, evidently for quick entry, but more than likely because they just casually left it that way.
As soon as the elevator reached the top, I stepped through the door and began examining the instrumentation. It didn't seem quite as complex as jet instrumentation, yet it was definitely moreso than that of an IBM microcomputer. The one item that caught my eye was a plain, black joystick, obviously used for maneuvering the craft in and out of the atmosphere. Space ships were getting casual.
"Everybody in their seats; launch in two minutes!" said one of the technicians far below us through a megaphone.
A bright red sign marked "No Smoking — Fasten Safety Belts" flashed up near the instrument panel. I wasn't worried about the smoking part, although I did securely pull a big black strap around my waist, along with a second going around my right shoulder that was obviously bonded to the waist belt; afterwhich, I buckled the whole two-strap assembly. I was completely ready for the launch.
"Okay, it's Tee minus one minute, uh ... 55 seconds ... oh, drat! I lost my watch! Oh, well ... Five, four, three, uh ... three ... aw, ---- it! Ready, set, go!"
Immediately, one of the astronauts reached above his head, and flipped a small white switch marked with a lower-case "i". The engines roared, and the whole kit and kaboodle began to lift from the launch pad. Within a few seconds, we were airborne.
The newly designed shuttle had no disposable rocket fuel tanks or side rockets as did the Enterprise and the Columbia, yet this launch would use only about twenty percent of its rocket fuel. Furthermore, rocket power was not its primary source of propulsion — this occupation was held by the gigantic ion engines, now held safely inside the hull of the shuttle. And even that was suppressed by the big solar sail, which, of course, could only be used when in close orbit of the sun.
Because of this, I was deeply afraid that sometime during our solar orbit, the sun would break out in a full-scale nova, and swallow this ship like nothing. Why hadn't the crew taken this into consideration? Did they just want to take a lot of chances?
We were soon out of Earth's atmosphere, and began orbiting to reach escape velocity (seven miles per second). The great ion engine was already coming slowly out of the hull, going both out from the body and back from its center. While it was inside the hull, it consumed about three fourths of all the available space; for the other quarter was necessary for the mylar-thin solar sail, which would be in use within two hours.
I turned my glance toward the close dying star. Now, I knew something was fishy; the sun was completely normal! But ... but ... ?!??
Our orbit began to swing from the Earth, out toward the apparently normal sun. Suddenly, as if being released from the grip of a giant, our orbit of Earth became an orbit of the sun, coming on with a large jolt. Now that we were nearing our star, I needed to don my space suit to reserve cabin oxygen.
I removed my seat strap, rose to my feet in the artificial gravity, and began contemplating on where I put my space suit when we got on. Hmmm ... let's see ... nope, it wasn't in the closet. Not in the storage chest, either. Aha! Now I remembered: it was on the ... the launching pad back on Earth!
Yes, I had forgetten my space suit. Dammit, I forget everything nowadays! I had to make some simple mnemonic devices so I wouldn't forget as much. But that was of little concern to me at the time; the astronauts were going to drop the cabin pressure to zero very soon.
'Well, maybe the sun wasn't normal — maybe it just looked that way', I thought to myself, quickly changing the subject at hand. I quickly took a small metric ruler from a large odds-and-ends compartment at the front of the shuttle and, holding it at arm's length, measured the diameter of the Earth. It was about five millimetres.
Reaching into a larger compartment, I produced a large metrestick, and holding this at the same angle I did the ruler, measured the distance from Earth to sun. It was much too large a distance to measure, but seemed about sixty metres long.
I did a quick series of mental calculations, and arrived at an approximation: 96 million miles. Almost exactly normal distance! The sun had not changed in size, since it had not changed its distance from the Earth. No nova was present.
Now, not only were my eyes filled with anger, but my mind was darting in nearly all directions. Just what could've happened to that double sized yellow-orange light certer? Had it already gone back to its original form? Could the nova have just been one of those instances where the sun "breathes"? And, even worse, what's gonna happen to me when the pressure is dropped to zero?
The astronauts and Alex weren't about to keep this thing sealed up just because one dummy forgot his space suit. After about an hour of extremely fast flight (the fastest ever achieved by a man-made vehicle), we were in close orbit around the sun. Not only was I afraid of the vacuum, but I wasn't too thrilled about the extreme temperature, either. I was guessing it'd be around 300 degrees Celsius.
I looked around the spac e ship thoroughly, then out the window at the sun, for I was almost certain it was going to be my last look. As I was scanning the area once more, I noticed one of the astronauts poised over a large red handle marked "airlock".
'Why are they doing this to me', I thought. 'I've forgotten my space suit. Yet they continue as if I meant nothing! Well, I am a passenger, but I don't see why I shouldn't be as important as ... Great Nova! What am I thinking?! Nobody is important! IT's always been that way, and it always will. Oh, no ... there goes the handle!'
The astronaut at the airlock door had turned the red handle, sounding with a low, thuddish "clank". I could begin to hear the air just barely seeping out of the newly made crack, and then ... whump! The door was flung wide open.
I braced myself to a seat in the middle of the cabin, prepared to be sucked out the door and into the raging inferno. To my great surprise, I felt no pressure change at all! The solar winds were that dense! And what's more, it couldn't have been more than thirty degrees Celsius!
Now, only one problem remained: the composition of the gas. All stars are big glowing balls of hydrogen and helium, which everyone knows are unbreatheable. Even if the air out there had a little oxygen in it, I still wouldn't be able to survive, since it was only at about one-half atmosphere pressure, or around eight psi.
I had been holding my breath out ever since the red handle was turned. It had to be then ... or never. I sniffed in a minute trace of the air. It smelled all right, and seemed to agree with my lungs. Immediately, I sucked in a full breath. It was breatheable enough for me.
I quickly exhaled the good air in a long sigh of relief. It was breatheable! I was so excited that I shouted it out: "It's breatheable!"
The two astronauts turned to each other, and began inquiring themselves in Japanese. I was so overexcited at the idea of still being alive after a lethal experience that I had completely neglected to ponder on the obvious problem: what brought all those conditions into the surrounding space? Certainly, I could believe the half-atmosphere pressure, and I could nearly believe the thirty-degree temperature (since we were at a near-perfect distance from the sun), but an oxygen solar wind? There was no way that wind could come from the sun; it had to be from some outside terran source. Or was it from Earth?
Alex evidently still couldn't believe that I was breathing normally, for his space suit was still fully in place. Nevertheless, since the air seemed harmless to me, he'd gone over to a viewport and opened it just as he would a house window of two frames. He was leaning out the space between the panes, looking on to the distant photospheric inferno that was what you'd call below us if it weren't for the zero gravity of the surrounding and total space.
I pushed off from the ground, launching my body in the direction of the open window. Once I came within arms reach of the transparent-plated portal, I extended my right hand, clamped it about the frame, and pulled my head through the eight-inch slot, facing the sun. Now, it appeared even more normal than I had expected it to be. A perfect, breathing sphere of hot, yellow-glowing hydrogen and helium, laying far below us, and approaching us slowly under our orbit.
Ah, now the temperature was beginning to rise. I sense it subtly at first, but then growing with intensity. I was certain the temperature had risen by at least five degrees Celsius since the airlock was first opened. Following my instincts, I pulled my head back inside, feeling the heat diminish as I did so. Yet even then the temperature continued rising.
One of the astronauts had pulled his way over to the instrument panel at the front of the shuttle, and began turning a few dials, all red-colored (every control was red-colored; evidently each control was "important", according to the designers of the shuttle). Through the thin air of the solar wind, I heard the hum of motors and hydraulic lifts coming from a good distance toward the shuttle's rear. As the hydraulic sound grew louder and in greater supply, I felt a distinct rocking, followed by an unexpected but powerful jolt. At the same instante, I felt a medium-weak breeze of solar wind come through both the open door and the open window. The solar sail was out.
Suddenly, I felt a deep chill come down my back. No, not a chill of emotion, but a chill of temperature. Evidently, the sail was already in its place, blocking the shine of the sun as well as riding on its solar wind. Now, I was safe from the heat that may soon have took my life.
Within half-an-hour-and-a-quarter, we had reached perihelion, and were in a very tight orbit, only a few million miles from the corona. Through a binocular periscope stretching downward beneath the mylar sail, I was able to seee the scintillating pyrotechnics of the solar corona. It was beautiful! It was like the Aurora Borealis to the twelfth power, but yellow in color, and never diminishing. Continual streaks of charged neutrons, hydrogen, and helium atoms flew out from the photosphere, constantly replenishing the corona.
I withdrew my gaze from the periscope, and looked out on the shielded light coming through the solar sail. The mylar had an unusual, glasslike chemical construction, so that no ultra-violet would be able to pass through it. Thus, it was safe to take a gander at the sun.
The mylar shielding had given it a purplish tint, and yet the corona was still barely visible. We were evidently about half 'way done with our first orbit; about one more and we'd fling off with our new speed toward the 'belt. And that would only be a few minutes.
And after those few minutes had passed, what of the solar wind that had supported my life? An obvious solution was to trap some of that solar wind, and save it for later use. And what better place to store it than in the hull?
I pulled myself over to the control console in the barely detectable artificial gravity of our orbital acceleration. The instrumentation was clearly marked — two big red knobs labeled "Left hull door" and "right hull door" respectively. I tested each for which way it had been turned, turned each the opposite direction until they would go no further.
At first, all I could hear was the hum of hydraulic motors slowly forcing the hull doors closed. Then "clank!", followed by "creeeeeeek!" and finally the loud "snap!" of metal fatigue. The hull doors had completely snapped of the gigantic ion engine. Oh well, we weren't going to use that again, anyway.
The two astronauts immediately rushed over to me, one pulling me away from the console, the other staring at the controls. It was too late to do anything now; the doors were almost completely closed.
Then, another "creeeeeeek!" sound, only this one sounded ... different. The hull doors were giving in around the girders of the solar sail! As the doors closed completely, I knew there was no sense in reopening them; and, furthermore, we still had our primary means of propulsion.
Meanwhile, Alex was just being a simple spectator, posing questions of me and the astronauts which, through the helmet and thin atmosphere, I could neither hear nor understand.
Now, stored within the hull, I had enough oxygen to last me for at least two Earth "days". And since our orbit was widening rapidly, I had to get myself in there as soon as possible.
I pushed myself out the door that was in the shadow of the sail. I had to remain in the shadows, or else the ultraviolet solar rays would give me "instant skin cancer." I pulled myself along makeshift handles on the shuttle's skin, quickly working my way over to the hull. Already I could feel the thinning air begin to prey on my lungs, as my breathing intensity steadily increased. I had to work fast.
But just as the thin air was a burden to my lungs, it was a blessing to my range of movement. As the air diminished with agonizing slowness, so my speed became steadily greater (or was that from natural adrenalin that sets in during panic?).
Pull after pull wizzed by; makeshift rung after makeshift rung. Inside of two minutes, I was upon the hull doors where they enclosed around the girders of the solar sail. Now, the toughest part of surviving came into play: I had to open the hull doors unaided, and with my bare hands; and with the air still thinning.
I felt around the steel bent out of shape surrounding the girders, found it completely sealed them off with no gaps. Air tight. This was going to be more difficult than I had expected. I inched my now tight fingers about a large steel flap, attempting to get as much leverage as possible in the swiftly dwindling external air supply. I grasped the same flap with my other hand, now using the old technique of complete relaxation before doing a strenuous task. But I had to work quickly; the air was almost completely gone.
I yanked at the flap at first, then changed this to a continuous pull. No give. "C'mon, you have to work!", I yelled to no one in particular. Suddenly, I thought I felt an ever so slight bending, followed by a microscopic trickle of air escaping from inside. Ah, my own feeble strength could never pry open the doors alone, but now I was aided by eight poinds per square inch of pressure from inside, since the air around me was no more. With a quick jerk, I pulled the door open by about a foot, allowing me ample room to force myself down through the whooshing air.
Once I was inside, I laxated my grip on the door, which quickly snapped shut due to the hydraulics behind the hull's construction. I was in pitch darkness, unable to see except with my ears and hands. I outstretched the latter, found the main sail girder, which I quickly began pulling myself down (I couldn't tell whether it was down or sideways; but at least it led somewhere).
As I was going the girder's length, my right hand came across something that fillibrated it badly. I jerked it away quickly. WHat I had felt was a high voltage electrical cable. Another second of exposure and my hand would have fried. I couldn't risk using the girder to guide me any longer.
I pushed myself from the girder in the direction it was going, yet out a few feet, or a couple of meters if you're talking European. I had given myself a hard push, for if I failed to reach a solid surface I'd probably be floating around endlessly in midair until artificial or natural gravity was created.
Fortunately, my feet found the floor and settled onto it easily. I pulled my body downward and clung to the smooth steel ground; if I ever left it.... It wasn't a very nice thought.
I felt around before me, discovered what seemed to be a crumpled piece of paper. Strange ... a crumpled piece of trash where sanitariness should prevail ... ?
I crawled about in the general direction of forward. Movement in a place like this was infinitely more dangerous than in a darkened cave. First of all, you don't have that nice little gravity to tell you what way you're going, nor to keep you on the ground, for that matter. Secondly, if this had been a zero-gravity cave, there would've been nice little natural stalagmites to cling to. Survival in a place like a darkened zero-G hull was nearly impossible.
Nevertheless, I continued onward.
After about three minutes (I'd estimated I'd covered some half-metre of ground), I came upon an oddly shaped and sluggish box. From the inertia it posessed, I'd estimate it weighed some twenty-five pounds back on Earth. As I was fumbling with its every protrusion, I came across what was evidently a switch. I flipped it.
A shaft of bright, yellow-white light sprang from the top of the device, reaching to the ceiling above me. I shielded my eyes from the intense glare that I was so unadapted to after ten minutes of total darkness. After a few seconds, I dared a squint.
There wasn't much to see on the ceiling, except the gap between the doors. I grasped the floodlamp, and tilted it so that its beam shone on the ground before me.
The place was littered all over with sundry types of trash; from empty bags of chips to cigarette butts. I had no idea the launch was this casual! Even the maintainence crew left their unwanted trash just lying around, littering the floor. So massive was the trash that it hadn't even floated off the ground.
Well, no matter how cheap the place looked, it was going to be my home for a while. I scanned the area, noticed a wad of dark blue paper off to my left. I outstretched my arm to reach it, suddenly aware of how hungry I was after not eating for at least ten hours. I unfolded the paper, and read with growing excitement. Laid out on a single blue print was the entire flight plan of the shuttle, times and all!
According to the blue prints, the shuttle was going to make a fly-by of Earth on her way to the 'belt at 09:34 next morning. If you could use the term morning in space. I glanced at my watch, noticed the time of 10:46 p.m.. I would have to sleep before a shot at Earth, and even then, how was I going to get down there?
Using the floodlamp, I scanned the entire room. As I was completing the scan, I noticed three big gray-black spheres lined up against one wall, each about two metres tall. And something else caught my eye with them; they were opened along their equatorial lines. Cut in half, so to speak, leaving only a single straight hinge at one end.
One remarkable thing I noticed about them was the thickness of their skin: I
had estimated about a
metrefoot-and-a-half of some grayish-black solid
substance, then about a centimetre of something transparent. I had to find out
what they were.
Ever so slowly, with gestures from my fingers and toes, I pulled my body across the floor. The centimetres seemed nearly motionless as I passed them on my twenty-five metre journey. My muscles were aching from continual use of those I rarely used before this.
It must've been midnight when I finally reached the sphere, completely exhausted. My muscles would probably be aching for days. Now progress could be made much more quickly.
I grabbed the floodlamp I had been resting on my back, and aimed it into one of the spheres, the one I was closest to. It seemed completely empty, and had an airtight seal. I stretched my hand out, felt the texture of the hull-skin. Slippery powder. And gray-black. Graphite! The number one material for heat shielding! This could only mean one thing....
With what little strength remained in me, I crawled into the heavily shelded sphere. Around the front of the lower rim was not only the normal airtight plastic-rubber, but what appeared to be small, hypersensitive electrodes, designed for binary information, not heavy electrical current. I looked through the inner shell to see where they led. The tiny, micro-thin electrical fibers led directly to the bottom of the sphere ... and then some.
I noticed a sign laying beside each sphere, "Danger — do not rupture fibers. Close sphere in case of emergency only. Will open hatch to hull." So that's what these were; escape pods! My means to Earth! And yet, in this newly acquired atmosphere of relief, I felt that something was still missing.
Then it dawned on me: Parachutes. None of the spheres had any. How would I make those last few kilometres without one? Was there any material around to assemble a makeshift?
I looked on the other side of the sphere and saw with relief six red knap sacks
each labeled "Emergency use only". My mind was going due to lack of sleep. I
had to rest.
When I awoke, it was 9:30. Just four minutes before our closest approach to Earth. Evidently, the astronauts had expected me to try something, for it was the secret door to the cabin opening that had waken me. Damn it, if I had known about that door, I never would've risked my life outside the shuttle!
I had very little time to lose. I reached over the metre-and-a-half rim, pulling aboard a parachute. At this point, the astronauts began to approach me. This was it. I reached up to the top hemisphere, and enclosed myself completely.
The astronauts were, as always, fully in their space suits. However, even a space suit can't prevent someone from being sucked into the deadly abyss. When the electrodes made contact, the hull doors rapidly swung open, allowing all eight psi to be sucked away. Before it diminished, I heard the faint scream of one of the astronauts trying desperately to keep his grip. I don't know whether he made it or not.
The great gush of air escaping out the doors was more than enough to break the inertia on this gigantic sphere, easily snapping off the tiny electrode fibers that ran from under it to some big binary sensor. My sphere jolted straight toward Earth out the doors; such a great jolt was it that my body was flung completely forward. I was knocked unconscious.
I was awakened some five days later by a weak sense of gravity, slowly growing in intensity. I was being pulled into Earth's gravitational field. However, after a little while of growing gravitation, it suddenly began to diminish, as though I were in free fall. A little later, I knew I must've been in free fall when I felt the sphere begin to heat up.
I was falling through Earth's atmosphere. I must've been going terminal velocity, as I felt no sense of gravity. Although it was pitch black inside I knew the graphite shell below me was rapidly boiling away into the atmosphere from the extreme heat outside the sphere. The lower shell would be gone shortly.
Well, then, I'd just have to bake this thing on both sides. I braced my body against the interior, vertically rotated the sphere so that it was upside down. The sphere kept on rotating. Now it would get evenly baked all over.
During those few seconds of seemingly infinite free fall, my mind was functioning at many times its normal rate. I thought of my being knocked unconscious, and suddenly realized that if I hadn't been, the sphere would've been rendered out of breatheable air inside of two days. The very thing that most people fear had saved my life.
Within a minute, the graphite shell had boiled away completely. Through the transparent globe of the interior, I was able to look down and see some three kilometres between me and the ground. I had to make my jump immediately.
Pulling the parachute over my shoulders, I popped the seal on the sphere, and let the whole thing swing open as I fell away from it. The rushing air stung my entire body as I painfully counted three seconds from the time I left the sphere. I hadn't much altitude left.
I fumbled for the ripcord at my side, pulled it. For a second, I had a deep fear the parachute failed to function. Then suddenly came the jerking uplift that accompanies a parachute's unfolding.
I looked down, saw an expanse of about one kilometre of altitude. Just think what would have happened if I had counted ten like everyone was supposed to!
In about half a minute, I settled lightly onto the ground. I had escaped the wrath of the shuttle entirely, and was safely back where I had come from — the fly-by had been near Southern California for some strange reason.
There it was again — the double-sized dull yellow nova of a sun! I glanced at my watch. Ten thirty! The sun shone at midnight! What was the reason for this???!?
Then, suddenly — it went out! No warnings, no slow dimming of light, just "poof!" Needless to say, I was confused. And I was even further confused when I realized that there was no difference in temperature between the time before the "sun" went out, and afterward.
Something caught my eye in the night sky where the sun had been. I looked at it closely, and from the distance it was from me, it appeared to be a small, gold tinted speck against the glare from the stars and the streetlights. But as it came closer, I knew that it couldn't have been just a gold speck — my eyes were focused on too great a distance. Finally, I was certain of what it was: a golden flying sphere, some five metres in diameter.
So that was the "nova"! I'd just like to know how it did that trick, and even more importantly, why. From the shape and speed of the thing, I'd guess it was of alien origin. A flying saucer for a sun.
The thing descended, and came to rest about ten metres from me. I adjusted my stance, stood poised for attack. A hatch opened on top of it. I was sweating nervously.
A head popped out of the hatch; a human head! And then another. They both rose, revealing two men dressed in three-piece black suits, wearing neckties. One of them reached into his back pocket, pulled out a wallet, showed me a badge, and announced, "FBI".
"WHAT??!?", I yelled. "Do you know what I've been through because of what you did?!!?"
"Yes, and we're happy for you. You passed the test!"
"The test of realization and of knowledge. Alex Wei passed it too."
"I still don't have any idea what you're talking about."
At that moment, I heard a loud firing of rocket engines. I looked up to where the sound originated, saw the space shuttle Columbia II. Alex had seemingly mastered the controls!
I ran toward the shuttle as quickly as I could manage. The side airlock door was gaping open, yet showed to light coming through. The shuttle raced closer and closer, and suddenly, Alex lept from the doorsill.
"Alex!" I shouted, and changed my direction of running to intercept him. I outstretched my arms, and caught him just before he reached the ground.
I looked up at the doomen shuttle, and the doomed street littered with cars below it. Suddenly, the engines in its rear boomed and flared up, causing the shuttle to rise up, and head on a collision course with the ocean. Alex had the shuttle pre-programmed.
I watched to the west as the shuttle flew low, then dipped out of sight. "Alex," I began, "You all right?"
"Sure!" he replied. "You were dumb forgetting your space suit!"
I lowered Alex to the ground, turned to the FBI men. "Now then, about this test? ..."
In the distance I heard the faint splash of the shuttle intercepting the ocean.
"The test," the oldest-looking of the two began, "Was a test of public awareness. And it is indeed a sad sight to see that only two people of the entire Los Angeles population passed it.
"The government was just sick of everyone lying around, not paying any attention to what was going on around them. So, they called in the FBI to rig up a simple test on the most densely populated area in the U.S.; Los Angeles. The Air Force had recently uncovered the secret to an anti-grav device (which, by the way, is still a secret), and along with that had devised a golden sphere called a photon amplifier, which is what you see before you now.
"While we were flying the 'amp' into place, you may have noticed a dark disc. That was only the 'amplifier while it was focused on an oblique point in space. Then, of course, we corrected that, and aimed it directly for the sun (which the sphere was blocking in a small area), and set it to "2X".
"You may have also noticed some spinning. This was only the required spin on the anti-grav it keep it functioning."
"Well, Alex," I asked, "How does it feel to have passed the test?"
"Tired. I wanna go to sleep."
The elder of the FBI men sighed. "Don't we all. Say, there's room for four in the photon amplifier. Why don't we all sleep there for tonight?"
Each of us silently agreed, as we clambered through the hatch atop the golden ball, and settled into the sphere for a good night's sleep.
We were awaken by Alex just before dawn the next day. Alex claimed he had seen many sunrises, and there was something too red about this one. "Too red," I thought. "Probably Ice clouds."
We exited the sphere, each willing to behold a phenomenal view. Alex, to my left, stared out on the west coastline with an expression of awe on his face. To my right, the two FBI men, still partly inside the golden ball, beheld the same awed look, facing the same direction.
Finally, I gaved to the west with everyone else, and saw the grossly oversized
red sun creeping over the horizon.
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